[size=13pt][size=13pt]Red-zone struggles continue for Vikings[/size][/size]
September 25, 2006
Special to the Daily Southtown
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Bears defense has been one of the story lines of this young NFL season, the squad allowing just seven points total against NFC North rivals Green Bay and Detroit through Weeks 1 and 2.
On Sunday, the Bears again did their defensive duties in a divisional game, giving up just nine points to the Minnesota Vikings in a 19-16 Bears victory. Antoine Winfield's 7-yard interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter was the Vikings' lone touchdown.
Through three games the Vikings have just two touchdowns on offense and one each on defense and special teams. In fact, kicker Ryan Longwell has as many touchdown passes -- one -- as starting quarterback Brad Johnson.
That means either Longwell's had to attempt field goals or the Vikings have given the ball away on all but three possessions in their first three games. It means a member of Minnesota's regular offense has not put the ball in the end zone since Marcus Robinson's 20-yard touchdown in the third quarter Sept. 11 against Washington.
"We have high expectations for this offense," Vikings center Matt Birk said. "We need to look at it as an example of how we can get better and start putting more points on the board."
Many factors Sunday aided in Minnesota's offense coming up empty again.
First, penalty flags. Minnesota racked up 114 yards in penalties in its first two games. The Vikings were flagged eight times for 83 yards against the Bears.
"That adds up against a good football team," Johnson said.
Second, turnovers, which hadn't been a problem. The Vikings entered the game with no fumbles lost and one interception.
Travis Taylor fumbled in the second quarter Sunday, and Johnson's botched handoff with just over three minutes left in the game led to Rashied Davis' eventual game-winning touchdown.
"I feel bad about that," Birk said. "I gave up the penetration."
Minnesota's attempt to break its slump of not reaching the end zone might have cost it the game after Davis' TD. On fourth-and-2 at its 46-yard line, with a timeout to use, the clock at 1:10 and the team needing just a field goal to force overtime, Johnson aired a ball down the sideline intended for Troy Williamson. The pass fell incomplete.
"We just tried to throw a playmaker," Minnesota head coach Brad Childress said.
Lately, there has been little of that.
The majority of Minnesota's offensive attack has come on the ground. Once a team benefiting from speedy receivers and a strong-armed quarterback, the Vikings now rely on running back Chester Taylor. So far this season, he's gotten the ball on 75 of the team's 91 rushes, but has just one score.
"We just need to execute better," Taylor said. "We can't keep getting knocked out of the red zone."
Posted on Tue, Sep. 26, 2006
[size=13pt]CASE OF RED-ZONE BLUES[/size]
The Vikings have struggled to score touchdowns this season once they've gotten past the opponent's 20-yard line.
BY SEAN JENSEN
The Vikings might not miss Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper anymore.
But they sure could use playmakers like the explosive receiver and the elusive quarterback in the red zone.
Through three games, the Vikings rank 27th in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, with two touchdowns in eight trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line, and the offense hasn't broken the goal line for a touchdown since the third quarter of the season opener in Washington.
In fact, because that 20-yard touchdown catch by receiver Marcus Robinson technically doesn't count as being in the red zone, the offense's only touchdown inside the 20 occurred on the opening drive of the season.
"You got less space to operate," Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "So it's the hardest place on the field to score. But we have to overcome that."
The Vikings are ranked 18th in overall offense and tied for 17th in points per game. But the former figure is based on yards per game, and the latter figure is skewed by a TD apiece from the special teams (kicker Ryan Longwell to tight end Richard Owens on a fake field goal) and defense (cornerback Antoine Winfield on an interception return).
Tied for 16th with eight red-zone chances, the Vikings scored at least a field goal on each possession, including two on Longwell game-winners. Interestingly, the Vikings also have reached the red zone on each of their opening offensive drives, an indication that coach Brad Childress has scripted a solid start.
But penalties, mental mistakes and conservative play-calling seemingly have doomed many of their drives.
"We just can't stop ourselves," McKinnie said. "At least we're coming away with some kind of points. But now we have to work to get seven of 'em."
Added fullback Tony Richardson: "It's really self-inflicting wounds."
For instance, against Carolina, the Vikings converted a fourth-and-1 play on the opening drive, and Travis Taylor caught a 36-yard pass. But on first and goal from the Panthers' 7-yard line, guard Artis Hicks was called for a holding penalty, negating a 6-yard run by Chester Taylor. Now, with first and goal from the 17, the Vikings handed the ball to third running back Artose Pinner and dumped a short pass to tight end Jim Kleinsasser. Then, Johnson was off-target on third and goal from the 8 to Travis Taylor.
On the next two red-zone attempts against the Panthers, the Vikings allowed pressure on the immobile Johnson on first down. Once, Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers blew by right tackle Marcus Johnson, and Brad Johnson threw the ball away, drawing an intentional grounding penalty. And in the fourth quarter, Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins blew by left guard Steve Hutchinson for a sack that cost the Vikings 6 yards.
"A lot of times, you can't overcome a 10-yard penalty in the red zone," Hicks said. "It's tough enough with what the defense is trying to do to you, so you don't want to help them."
When an offense makes a mistake, Hicks said defenses become more aggressive while offenses get more conservative.
"You might make a mistake and knock yourself out of field-goal range," Hicks said of the risk for an offense. "And that's what they want you to do. So they pin their ears back and blitz you.
"And before you know it, the kicker is sitting back down."
Not including Johnson, the Vikings deactivated their most proven touchdown scorer Sunday against the Bears, receiver Marcus Robinson, who has 40 career touchdowns.
In his third season with the Vikings, Robinson has proven reliable in utilizing his 6-foot-3 frame to outmaneuver defenders on jump balls in the end zone.
The Vikings are pleased with the progress of second-year receiver Troy Williamson. But they clearly still are exploring other options at that position. Several receivers are expected to work out today at Winter Park, including Darius Watts, formerly of Denver.
Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said defenses have the upper hand in the red zone because the long vertical passes no longer are an option.
"It's all horizontal passing pretty much, sideline to sideline," Winfield said.
Teams also typically fall into the cover 2, which demands excellent tackling from the defensive players. That means running the ball or relying on a catch-and-run playmaker are the best ways to reach paydirt.
Moss had the size and speed to make defenders miss, while Culpepper's mobility forced other teams to be very careful about blitzing him and even allocating a defender to "spy on him."
So far, no Vikings offensive player has commanded such respect.
"It's just something we have to work out," Williamson said. "But it'll all come together. We'll figure it out. It just takes time."
The Vikings work on red-zone offense at least two times a week. But they have not been able to translate the practice success into games.
"It's definitely a positive to get down there," Vikings tight end Jermaine Wiggins said, "and we're putting ourselves in a situation to come away with points. But on the other hand, you have to try to come away with sevens.
"Field goals are good. But you're going to need touchdowns to win."
Sean Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted on Tue, Sep. 26, 2006
[size=13pt]Vikings' units not at odds[/size]
Defense isn't critical of offense's woes
BY SEAN JENSEN
Left tackle Bryant McKinnie feels guilty that the Vikings' struggling offense hasn't done more to complement the team's dominant defense this season.
"They're really doing a good job," he said, "and nobody's even scored 20 points on us yet."
After making that comment, McKinnie knocked on the nearest wooden locker. He didn't want to jinx the play of the defense, which has struggled in recent years.
"The defense is doing really good," he said, "so I'm thankful for them. Hopefully, we'll come around."
Despite his offensive background, coach Brad Childress can thank his revamped defense for the Vikings' 2-1 start. The offense has mustered just two touchdowns. But there are no signs of animosity between defensive and offensive players.
Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield said his unit is mindful of the quality of defenses the offense has faced.
"I mean, come on, Chicago, Carolina and Washington?" Winfield said. "Those are some really good defenses. Then Buffalo? They're playing against some really good defenses, so we really don't expect them to go out there and put 30 points on the board. But we still need to find a way to win those games."
Childress said he hasn't sensed any frustration from the defensive players, citing the old adage, "win as a team, lose as a team."
"There's going to be days where they (the defense) struggle and we (the offense) end up making some plays," said Childress, who calls the offensive plays. "I can go back to our very first year, our 5-11 year, in Philadelphia. They led the NFL in turnovers, that defense did. It would have been real easy to flip. I think when you have a team atmosphere and a team culture, they're disappointed more that they left plays on the field than worrying about us."
"We're here for one reason. That's win," defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said. "We didn't do enough to win.... We just want to win by any means necessary, as a football team."
Both units are learning new schemes, but Winfield said the offense definitely is dealing with more complexities.
"I was watching one TV show, and they were interviewing Brad (Johnson), and he was on the field, and they were running through plays, and the verbiage, and I'm like, 'That's a lot of stuff.' " Winfield said. "I don't even know how he says that in the huddle, after being tired. Hopefully, they'll get it together and put those points up that we need."
Sean Jensen can be reached at sjensen[email protected]