Vikes to lean on defence, running game
Article from ESPN Insider from Scouts Inc.
The Vikings had no problem grabbing headlines this offseason. Head coach Mike Tice endured a very public Super Bowl ticket-scalping scandal. Then Reggie Fowler's bid to buy the team stalled, and now if Red McCombs does sell the team, there are strong indications Fowler will relinquish his role as lead investor to Zygmunt Wilf.
But aside from who sat in Tice's seats in Jacksonville and the mystery of who will be signing the Vikings' paychecks, the team made plenty of field-related news as well, improving its roster more than any team in the NFL.
The Eagles beat Minnesota in every phase of last year's NFC divisional playoff game, and following that 27-14 loss, the Vikings' coaching staff realized major changes were needed for them to become legitimate Super Bowl contenders. They started by purging themselves of their biggest headline grabber, wide receiver Randy Moss. Realizing he had become too much of a distraction and had worn out his welcome, the Vikings traded Moss to the Raiders for outside linebacker Napoleon Harris and first- and seventh-round picks in this year's draft. Then they turned to the defense.
In 2003, the Vikings ranked seventh in the NFL with 35 take-aways. Their strategy was to follow the lead of the 1999 and 2001 Rams teams that used timely interceptions to give their explosive offense a short field to work with. The Vikings employed the same philosophy in 2004, but fell to eighth-worst in the NFL with only 22 take-aways, largely because their defense had only marginal playmaking ability.
So the Vikings started their defensive overhaul by signing three new starters in free agency (defensive tackle Pat Williams, safety Darren Sharper, cornerback Fred Smoot) and acquiring two new starters via trade: Harris and middle linebacker Sam Cowart. Not only will these five players start, but the five players they replace now will be experienced backups who can fill in on a special teams unit that also struggled in 2004.
The Vikings now can be more aggressive on defense because they have two shut-down, man-to-man corners in Smoot and Antoine Winfield. Both can play on an island, allowing the front seven to blitz more and create more turnovers. As explosive as the 2004 Vikings offense was, their defense didn't give them easy opportunities to score.
Talent aside, what really bothered the coaching staff was the number of big plays given up due to blown assignments. That shouldn't be a problem in 2005, since the defense will be captained by safeties Sharper and Corey Chavous. Together they form the most intelligent safety duo in the NFL, and since he came from the Packers, Sharper knows the NFC North as well as anyone. Along with the great feel Cowart has at middle linebacker, expect breakdowns and mental mistakes to greatly decrease.
Minnesota's changes this offseason weren't limited to the defense, of course. A lot of people assume the loss of Moss will really hurt the offense. While he certainly was a great player, his departure means the philosophy of the unit will change. The coaching staff likes to run the football to set up the passing game. They got away from that philosophy in 2004, running the ball 130 fewer times than in 2003. While their 4.7 yards per carry average was high (second in the NFL), their play calling reflected a pass-heavy scheme.
The team missed the blocking of tight end Jim Kleinsasser, who went down in Week 1 with a knee injury. Without him, the Vikings went from a two-tight end, one-back offense with a power-run mentality to a three-receiver, one-back offense with a pass-first, run-second mentality. In 2005, the Vikings will look to return to the two-tight end set and pound the football to set up the vertical passing game. This ball-control attack will take pressure off the defense, which was on the field too much last season. With the Moss "star system" no longer a factor, the Minnesota offense will adopt a production by committee approach at running back and wide receiver.
Defensively, the Vikings will implement and call a more aggressive, blitz-oriented scheme designed to create turnovers and good field position. Offensively, they will be more balanced and emphasize the run. The Vikings' additions through free agency and the draft make them the odds-on favorite to win the NFC North in 2005.