[size=18px]Vikings: Takeaways provide key to winning[/size]

Turnovers were a major problem for the team early in the season. But these days, opponents are the ones having trouble hanging on to the ball.

Judd Zulgad, Star Tribune
Last update: November 29, 2005 at 9:00 PM


Today marks the one-month anniversary of what appeared to be the unofficial end of the Vikings' 2005 season. A 38-13 loss at Carolina left Mike Tice's team with a 2-5 record, without injured quarterback Daunte Culpepper and with a defense ranked 27th in the NFL.

Thirty-two days and four victories later, the Vikings are 6-5, backup Brad Johnson has yet to lose a game and the revitalized defense is ranked ... drum roll, please ... 28th.

Huh?

That's right; despite the obvious improvement, the defense has fallen a spot in the misleading stat of yards surrendered.

So where's the statistical evidence of the strides made in the past month by this unit? Look no further than Page 3 of the weekly NFL statistical packet, where the turnover ratio for each team is listed.

Following the Carolina defeat, the Vikings were tied for 27th in the league in that category at minus-8. Today the Vikings have risen to 16th and have one more takeaway (25) than giveaways (24). Their 17 interceptions are second in the NFL, behind Cincinnati's 23.

"We need to create turnovers based on the type of football team we are," Tice said. "If we're not going to be a statistical team and be number one, two, three, four or five in defense or offense, we need to create opportunities for our offense to go short-field. So certainly it is something that we have emphasized probably even more so the last four or five weeks. But you're always emphasizing turnovers and lack of turnovers."

That emphasis has paid dividends lately. During their four-game winning streak, the Vikings have an NFL-leading 15 takeaways, including 11 interceptions. The offense has turned over the ball six times during that span.

"We just kept talking about it," said defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who has players work on forcing turnovers at least one day a week in practice. "We haven't really done any special drills or anything. We just said if we get a chance to intercept a pass, intercept it. Get a fumble recovery, get it. We weren't getting any earlier. But now they started to come in bunches."

That trend continued in the Vikings' 24-12 victory over Cleveland on Sunday. The Vikings had three interceptions and recovered two fumbles, thanks in part to pressure from a pass rush that had a season-high five sacks. The Vikings took possession with that all-important short field three times.

Starting drives at the Cleveland 35-, 17- and 32-yard lines, the league's 25th-ranked offense converted all three times with Johnson and receiver Marcus Robinson connecting on touchdown passes. "When you play on short fields it changes the whole momentum of the game if we are able to convert," Johnson said.

The biggest contributor to the Vikings' takeaway spree has been Darren Sharper. The free safety has six interceptions during the winning streak, including two Sunday, and is tied with Cincinnati cornerback Deltha O'Neal for the NFL lead with seven.

Cottrell said Sharper's increased comfort level with the Vikings defense after spending eight seasons with the Packers has been instrumental to his recent success.

"It's a matter of him knowing what the team is doing," Cottrell said. "That's the thing. He's playing his position very well. He's now making calls that he wasn't making earlier, so his familiarity with the scheme has improved over time. He made a couple of calls [Sunday] that he would have not made earlier in the year. Those type things are putting him in position to utilize his abilities."

So is the pressure being applied from the front four. Cottrell said execution was so strong against the Browns that he rarely had to call for blitzes, leaving more defenders in coverage.

"I wouldn't be able to do the things that I've done so far if it wasn't for our defensive line," Sharper said. "I said this from Day 1: Pass rush and turnovers go hand in hand. If you can force the quarterback to make decisions before he is ready to, it gives you opportunities to make plays on the football and be aggressive to the football."