[size=18px] Short game does the job for Vikings [/size]

With Brad Johnson under center, the offense included more quick-timing pass plays, but the deep route remained an option.

Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: November 7, 2005 at 9:04 PM

Harrington loses confidence, opportunity
Brad Johnson's first pass Sunday as the Vikings starting quarterback went to receiver Nate Burleson. It gained 1 yard. The Vikings gained 5 yards on Johnson's second completion, 2 yards on his third and then broke lose for 12 yards on his fourth -- an out pattern to receiver Troy Williamson on third down.

Vikings coaches told no white lies last week when they said their post-Daunte Culpepper offense would include more short-drop, quick- timing passes than it had in previous incarnations. In all, 80 percent of Johnson's completions went for 12 yards or less. His longest pass was a 26-yard screen play to Mewelde Moore, and the Vikings were more than content to let that approach complement a rejuvenated running game in their 27-14 victory over Detroit.

A commanding first-half lead alleviated the need to throw many downfield passes, but offensive coordinator Steve Loney said the Vikings made at least two key points in Sunday's victory. They showed that Johnson can move the team with an approach that strays from the Vikings' recent vertical philosophy. Importantly, however, Johnson demonstrated he can take a downfield shot; in the second quarter, he hit Williamson in stride for what would have been a 42-yard touchdown pass had Williamson hung on.

"Early on we wanted to make sure we could gain some confidence," Loney said Monday. "We didn't stand back there [in case] they were looking and saying, 'Their quarterback isn't as mobile, so we're going to bring a lot of heat and a lot of pressure.'

"So not knowing exactly what their game plan was going to be, you can feel them out and be solid with your protection with a three-step drop and some shorter stuff that gets the ball out of [Johnson's] hands. I think that helps with the rhythm."

Once that rhythm was established, the Vikings hoped to capitalize on the deep throw to Williamson. Johnson fired the ball 52 yards in the air, by Loney's estimate. And while safety Kenoy Kennedy helped break up the pass, the upside was the Vikings gave their future opponents something to think about when they watch film.

"They will see that you can't really sit on all of Brad's routes," said Loney, referring to a tactic defensive backs use when they are not concerned about a receiver making a second move to get downfield. "He's got the arm strength and can get the ball deep."

In many ways, Sunday's game marked an ideal scenario for a new quarterback. The Vikings enjoyed premier field position, starting their average drive at their 39-yard line and beginning four drives inside Lions territory. Even with Johnson using his own version of a hard count, the Vikings went without an offensive penalty for the first time this season -- keeping their down-and-distance manageable throughout.

And finally, the Vikings ran the ball better than at any point this season. With tight end Jim Kleinsasser sealing the edge and their linemen routinely taking Lions defenders off their feet, Vikings runners gained 164 yards on 35 carries.

"Getting our running game going really helped a lot," right tackle Mike Rosenthal said. "It didn't feel like a different offense to me. I don't know if it looked different. A lot of the things we did are the same things we always try to do around here."

And yet Sunday was the first time this season many of them had worked. The Vikings even tapped into their long-forgotten array of play-action passes, one rendered mostly dormant by large deficits and a previously ineffective running game. The payoff came with 11 minutes, 2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, when Johnson faked a run and then rifled a 19-yard pass downfield to receiver Travis Taylor.

The play put the Vikings in field goal range after a sluggish third quarter, and Paul Edinger's 40-yard kick gave the Vikings a 13-point lead midway through the fourth.

"We had more patience in the running game," said coach Mike Tice, whose team ran 34 times and called 26 passing plays. "We kept pounding and running there. ... So you create that balance. The running game created that big play-action pass. That was a key play for us. ... The running game does that."