If it ain't broke ... Vikings might stick with 3-4 defense

Duluth News Tribune

Associated Press

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Minnesota defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was wrapping up a chat with local writers earlier this week when he leaned forward and displayed a mischievously proud expression.

"So were you guys surprised?" Cottrell asked, referring to the 3-4 scheme the Vikings sprung on the Bears last Sunday in Chicago after a string of injuries on the line and stuck with for almost every snap.

When told that a few keen observers had spotted the change in practice, Cottrell let out an, "Aw, shoot," followed by his familiarly high-pitched cackle that belies his deep baritone voice.

The consolation for Cottrell? The alternative alignment actually worked well, despite the 28-3 defeat.

"Best performance of the year," said linebacker Sam Cowart.

Two of the touchdowns Minnesota gave up in the game followed turnovers, on drives of 3 yards or less. A third Bears score required a march of only 49 yards after a 49-yard punt return.

"They stuffed Chicago. They really did," Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre said. "The score was no indication of how their defense played."

Against the Bears, the Vikings allowed only 192 yards - by far their lowest total of the season. And because of the new look, the Packers weren't able to use their bye week for extra preparation.

"Surprised? Not necessarily," coach Mike Sherman said. "I think it's good coaching to take advantage of your personnel."

Starting end Kenechi Udeze is out for the year following knee surgery, and end Spencer Johnson - who can also play tackle - was also missing in Chicago because of a knee injury. That essentially forced Cottrell into the switch from the usual 4-3 scheme (four linemen, three linebackers) to the 3-4 (three linemen, four linebackers).

All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams, whose production had been substandard, moved to left end and had his best game of the season. Darrion Scott remained at right end, and big Pat Williams became the nose tackle.

Keith Newman took over for Napoleon Harris at one starting spot on the outside, and Raonall Smith earned a promotion to the first team as a starter on the other side. Cowart and E.J. Henderson played on the inside.

"It allows you to be a little bit more aggressive," Smith said. "You get to force the issue and make the offense react a little bit more to what you're doing, instead of reacting to what they're doing."

With Pat Williams dominating Bears Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz and Newman and Smith effectively playing the run to the outside, cornerbacks Fred Smoot and Antoine Winfield were also able to play mostly man-to-man coverage. The 4-3 normally uses more zone.

"It's a shame we didn't win the game, because we had a lot of guys play well," Cottrell said.

Cowart, Newman, Winfield and Pat Williams all previously played for Buffalo, when Cottrell was the defensive coordinator. Back then, the Bills used the 3-4 all the time.

So the familiarity sure helps. Plus, it's easier to disguise blitzes with that scheme, generally stronger against the run - and simpler to play when the opposition uses shifts and motion before the snap.

"You just sit there and wait," Cowart said. "Are y'all done? Let's play ball."

The 3-4 defense was more common 15 years ago, when speedy, sack-hungry outside linebackers like Lawrence Taylor roamed the league. It's beginning to come back in style, now that the New England Patriots have used it on three Super Bowl-winning teams in the past four seasons.

The key to its effectiveness is strong and agile ends, a stout nose tackle, fast outside linebackers and cornerbacks capable of man-to-man coverage. Those are ingredients the Vikings appear to have right now.

With Johnson downgraded to questionable on Friday, it's all but certain they'll stick with what worked for them last week.

"I don't know that right now we have much choice," coach Mike Tice said.