[size=13pt]An arm and a leg up[/size]
Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell threw the teams' only touchdown pass and made three field goals, including the game-winner in overtime.
Kevin Seifert, Star Tribune
Last update: September 18, 2006 â€“ 12:29 PM
For what seemed to be the 815th time Sunday afternoon, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers had his hands on Brad Johnson, the Vikings' quarterback/punching bag. Peppers was pulling on Johnson's collar, trying to yank him down and turn another third down into a punting situation.
It was third-and-10, and the Vikings were sitting at their 32-yard line with 10 minutes, 27 seconds left in overtime. They had failed on 13 of their 14 attempts to convert a third down -- thanks in no small part to Peppers, who finished the afternoon with three sacks and four additional hits on Johnson.
On this occasion, the Panthers rushed only four men, leaving Johnson searching for a receiver against maximum coverage. Troy Williamson, running a shallow drag route, darted into Johnson's vision -- just as Peppers grabbed his collar.
Johnson considered switching the ball to his left hand and pushing it toward Williamson, believing he could create an angle that would keep cornerback Richard Marshall from tipping the ball away.
"I knew it was pure man-to-man," Johnson said, "and if I could hold on to it for just one extra count, [the play was open]."
By waiting calmly -- or insanely, depending upon your tolerance for pain -- Johnson allowed Williamson to get a step on Marshall. Johnson delivered the ball righthanded but from a limbo position, his body bent almost 90 degrees backward at the waist, and he watched as Williamson turned the 7-yard pass into a 30-yard reception that put the ball inside the Carolina 40-yard line.
Four plays later, Ryan Longwell's 19-yard field goal gave the Vikings a 16-13 victory. The kick gave them a pair of three-point victories in six days, a rate of late-game success attributable as much to Johnson as anyone in the Vikings organization.
Sacked five times, hit six other times and unofficially hurried another six times, Johnson kept his wits to complete 19 of 31 passes for 243 yards.
"I think I've been asked about that 15 times the past two weeks," center Matt Birk said afterward, feigning exasperation. "So please, write it down this time so I don't have to say it next week: Brad has done it all in this league. He's seen it all. He never loses his composure. Just knowing the kind of guy he is, and what he's accomplished, it makes him a calming presence in there."
Much as they did in last week's victory at Washington, the Vikings hid in the bushes Sunday, ready to pounce when and if Carolina made the first big mistake. Panthers coach John Fox obliged, calling for some ill-advised razzle-dazzle on a punt return while holding a 13-6 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Johnson and coach Brad Childress took it from there, engineering the game's final 10 points on a fake field goal and Longwell's winning kick.
"You have to expect games like these," Johnson said. "I always think you're going to have 11 or 12 games where they will come down to the last drive. Whether it's closing the game out or coming from behind, there usually aren't blowouts in the NFL -- [especially] with the teams we're playing. I can't imagine playing tougher defensive teams than we're playing, so you have to expect close games."
Most NFL observers consider the Vikings' first three opponents -- Washington, Carolina and Chicago -- to be Super Bowl contenders. Childress has prepared his team for close early games, driving home to players that tight games would be the norm and not a panic-inducing rarity.
Childress, in fact, estimates that 80 percent of NFL games come down to "somebody coming one way to beat you or you going the other way to beat them."You're either hanging on defensively to get them stopped or you're trying to grind it out and get to a spot where you can win," Childress added. "It's amazing how many times it comes down to that, so you have to have a little constitution to be able to do that. That's what we've talked about since the beginning of training camp, to be mentally tough and not to flinch, and I don't think any of our guys flinched."
That reaction should be no surprise if you subscribe to the theory that many teams feed of the emotions of the performance and emotions of their quarterback. Like his team, Johnson was under duress through much of the second half as the Panthers took a seven-point lead. Notably, Johnson threw an interception into the arms of Carolina cornerback Ken Lucas at midfield early in the fourth quarter, a turn of events that suggested Sunday was not to be the Vikings' day.
But Johnson remained cool and completed all three of his overtime passes. The top reason why the Vikings are 2-0 this morning? Because they know they can count on Johnson to find a way -- even from the limbo position -- to win close games.
"We're going to be in every game, especially the way we're playing in this system," Johnson said. "When it's time to strike, we'll strike. Today we did a great job of hanging in there."
Even with Julius Peppers trying to break you in half.
Kevin Seifert â€¢ [email protected]
[size=13pt]Blitzes attack pressure points[/size]
Defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin deviated from his scheme and still wreaked havoc against a vulnerable Panthers offensive front.
Judd Zulgad, Star Tribune
Last update: September 17, 2006 â€“ 11:08 PM
Mike Tomlin knew exactly what the Carolina Panthers would be expecting Sunday. The Panthers, after all, are NFC South rivals of Tomlin's former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that franchise is as closely identified with its version of the Cover-2 as Kansas City is with barbecue.
And so the Vikings defensive coordinator -- a man who swears by the Tampa-2 scheme -- called an audible in his own game plan. That decision helped the Vikings to a 16-13 overtime victory Sunday at the Metrodome.
"We kind of switched it up a little bit; we did a lot more Cover-1 and went after them," safety Darren Sharper said. "The fact their offensive line was a little beat up probably had a little bit to do with that. We saw some things that we could attack and we did that."
One principle of the Tampa-2 defense calls for the front four to apply pressure without much blitzing. But by Sharper's estimate, the Vikings blitzed about 60 percent of the time Sunday, including on nearly every third-down situation. That was about 20 percent more than they had blitzed in their Week 1 victory at Washington. Carolina ended up 3-for-14 (21 percent) on third downs. Washington had gone 4-for-13 (31 percent) on third down.
"We do what we feel is necessary to win," Tomlin said. "We felt like that [pressure] gave us an edge. We knew the situation that they were in from a personnel standpoint with their offensive line. So we did what we had to do."
The Panthers offensive line was missing starting center Justin Hartwig (groin) and left tackle Travelle Wharton (knee). The Vikings, using a rotation of defensive linemen to keep players fresh, got their first two sacks of the season.
Defensive tackle Kevin Williams threw quarterback Jake Delhomme for a 10-yard loss in the third quarter to put Carolina in a fourth-and-15 hole at its own 17. The second came on third-and-1 from the Vikings 1 when middle linebacker Napoleon Harris burst through the middle and sacked Delhomme for a 7-yard loss. That held Carolina to a field goal and a 13-6 third-quarter lead.
Harris also appeared to force a Delhomme fumble with a sack in overtime that would have given the Vikings the ball at the Carolina 24. The play was reviewed and overturned because Delhomme was ruled to have been attempting a pass.
Harris had a game-high 10 tackles and a quarterback hurry. And this was after he sat out much of the second quarter because of a quadriceps injury.
After the game, Harris said he felt fine and acknowledged that Sunday's effort was his best with the Vikings. "I'm just more comfortable in this defense," said Harris, who was benched early last season after struggling as the starting strong-side linebacker. "I'm playing in a position I'm familiar with. It all comes from getting the opportunities and showing what I can do. I think I did a great job of doing that as well as the coaches having the confidence to put me out there."
Judd Zulgad â€¢ [email protected]
Posted on Mon, Sep. 18, 2006
[size=13pt]Vikings again display their new late-game nerve[/size]
BY SEAN JENSEN
When the fourth quarter commenced Sunday in the Metrodome, the Vikings assumed an all-too-familiar position.
For the second consecutive week, the Vikings were engaged in a tight defensive struggle against a 2005 playoff team. And for the second consecutive week, the Vikings eked out a narrow win on a winning field goal from kicker Ryan Longwell, this one a 19-yarder that gave them a 16-13 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
'Most games in the NFL come down to the fourth quarter,' Vikings center Matt Birk said. 'So when you get in the fourth quarter and the game is close, it's not time to panic. It's just time to tighten up your focus a little bit and get 'er done. And the last two weeks, we've done enough to win.'
The past few years, the Vikings have not, tending to implode in close games. Since 2001, the Vikings had just four comeback wins in 36 games when trailing after three quarters. But the Vikings' style is shifting, and the process started before new coach Brad Childress arrived in January.
With his proletarian approach, veteran quarterback Brad Johnson has led the Vikings to four victories decided in the fourth quarter in 11 starts.
In classic fashion, Johnson again delivered in the clutch despite modest numbers (19 of 31 for 243 yards, with one interception and no touchdowns). After his defense forced a controversial punt on the opening drive of overtime, Johnson completed a short pass to receiver Troy Williamson as Johnson was being dragged down from behind by Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.
Williamson, with a step on cornerback Chris Gamble, raced 30 yards down the left side of the field for one of the Vikings' rare third-down conversions, and running back Chester Taylor leaked through a gaping hole two plays later for a 33-yard gain to set up Longwell's winner.
The Panthers' cornerback got beat on Williamson's key catch. But Gamble gambled in the fourth quarter and arguably cost his team the win.
With Carolina leading 13-6, Gamble fielded a punt at the Panthers' 38-yard line. He ran left and, quizzically, threw the ball at least 15 yards toward the middle of the field. The lateral was intended for cornerback Richard Marshall, but he mishandled the pass, and Vikings linebacker Jason Glenn recovered the loose ball.
"Obviously, it didn't work out," Panthers coach John Fox said. "In hindsight, it is a trick play that I wish I would have back. Unfortunately, that is not the way it works."
Four plays later, the Vikings reached into their own bag of trick plays. After a dismal showing by the offense, the Vikings faced a fourth-and-5 play from the Panthers' 16. Longwell lined up for a 33-yard field goal. But punter Chris Kluwe took the snap and flipped the ball to Longwell, who rolled right and feathered a touchdown pass to tight end Richard Owens, who was wide open on the right side of the field.
"Add that to my repertoire," Longwell jokingly said.
The play wasn't a fluke, as special-teams coordinator Paul Ferraro, an assistant for the Panthers last season, noticed vulnerability in his former club when it lined up a certain way. Usually aggressive â€” Peppers blocked a 51-yard field-goal attempt by Longwell in the third quarter â€” the Panthers were outmaneuvered on that play, with no one accounting for Owens.
After the game, Panthers safety Mike Minter said he was responsible for covering Owens and blew the assignment.
"Not in a million years was I thinking they were going to fake the field goal," Minter told the Gaston (N.C.) Gazette. "So they got us."
The Vikings seized the momentum at that point, but the offense was unable to capitalize on a strong fourth quarter from the team's defense.
Usually sure-handed tight end Jermaine Wiggins dropped a third-down pass in Panthers territory, and the offense could not take advantage of excellent field position with 1:45 remaining.
"The defense just had a hell of a series," guard Steve Hutchinson said. "They hold up their end of the bargain, but we really didn't do it offensively."
After executing against the Washington Redskins in the season opener, the Vikings' offense struggled on third downs against the Panthers. The Vikings converted just two of 15 chances, and they went three and out three times. The most promising performance came from Williamson, who shook off a shoulder injury to catch six passes for 102 yards.
But the defense kept the Vikings in the game, with another relentless performance marked by consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback. With an injury-ravaged offensive line, Panthers Pro Bowl quarterback Jake Delhomme was blitzed consistently by the Vikings, especially on third downs.
Vikings safety Darren Sharper said defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin veered from the team's traditional Cover 2 scheme, integrating a lot more blitzes from different positions. Sharper guessed that the Vikings blitzed 60 percent of the time.
"I always like to be more aggressive and go after teams," Sharper said. "It works out well for us."
Now the Vikings prepare for a key NFC North showdown against the defending division champion Chicago Bears (2-0).
This time, though, Hutchinson hopes the Vikings can win in a more comfortable fashion.
"We've had some good tests the first two weeks," Hutchinson said, "and the more you are in those situations, the more comfortable you are. But you don't really want into those situations. You'd like to win a little easier than that."
Sean Jensen can be reached at [email protected]
Posted on Mon, Sep. 18, 2006
[size=13pt]Harris plays breakout game[/size]
Linebacker's goal-line sack critical to Vikings' victory
BY DON SEEHOLZER
The best game of Napoleon Harris' young Vikings career nearly was ruined by one of the worst calls he said he has ever seen.
Things worked out in the end, though, for him and his team, which left the Metrodome with a 16-13 overtime win over Carolina on Sunday, thanks in large part to the stellar play of its new starting middle linebacker.
"Napoleon played a strong game," defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said. "He's a very stout blitzer. They did a nice job from a protection standpoint, but the tempo at which he played, the way he hit the gaps. He simply ran some people over."
That's what happened less than two minutes into overtime, on what looked to be the play of the game.
Harris, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles, hit Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme from the front just as defensive end Kenechi Udeze arrived from behind and the ball popped loose, with defensive end Darrion Scott recovering at the Carolina 24-yard line.
After an instant-replay challenge, Delhomme's arm was ruled to have been moving forward on the play, changing it from a fumble to an incomplete pass and allowing the Panthers to punt the ball away.
Standing on the Vikings' sideline, Harris couldn't believe his ears.
"I thought it was a sack and forced fumble," he said. "I saw the replay, and it definitely looked like our offense should have been out on the field."
Udeze's reaction was even stronger, especially after he saw the replay.
"After looking at it again, I thought it was a no-brainer," he said. "When they overturned it, I didn't know what to say. That was one of the worst calls I've ever seen since I've been playing football, ever."
That wasn't, however, the only big play by Harris, who had another with 3:18 to play in the third quarter that gave the Vikings the chance to put the game into overtime.
With the Panthers sitting on a 10-6 lead and facing a third and goal from the Minnesota 1, Harris sacked Delhomme for a 7-yard loss that forced Carolina to settle for a field goal and a seven-point advantage instead of a commanding 11-point edge.
"That was big," Udeze said of Harris' play. "That was real big. He's been playing his (butt) off. I'm real excited about what he's doing. He's making a lot of plays."
Harris accepted the compliment with his typical modesty and gave an assist to linebacker E.J. Henderson.
"I told him to cover me up; I'm going," Harris said. "On the snap, I saw the guard block down on the open gap, so I just took the gap."
Regarded as a bust last season after coming over from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade, Harris said he feels like he has more freedom at middle linebacker in the Vikings' new Tampa 2 defense.
Modesty aside, he had to agree this was his best game since he has been here.
"Since I've been a Viking, yes," he said. "I'm just looking to build on it."
Don Seeholzer can be reached at [email protected]
Posted on Mon, Sep. 18, 2006
[size=13pt]Bring on da funk[/size]
At the end of a mostly dull game, both coaches try to beat the no-imagination rap with trick plays, but only the Vikings pull it off.
The Vikings unveiled their new theme song during Sunday's game. It's a rap tune called "Bring in the Horns," and it goes like this:
"â€¦ (unintelligible) â€¦ (unintelligible) â€¦ Bring in the horns â€¦ (unintelligible) â€¦ (unintelligible) â€¦ Bring in the horns â€¦"
The crowd appeared dumbfounded. Still, it was the most exciting thing to happen during the first three quarters against Carolina.
It started out as one of those afternoons in which watching at home on TV seemed infinitely preferable to being at the Metrodome. At least at home you can flip channels, wash dishes or, when the game is as dull as Sunday's, maybe swallow a bottle of drain cleaner or something.
So some of us sat there and railed at the unimaginative, repetitive play calling. The Dink 'Em Dizzy offense never looked worse. And the Panthers were missing too many key players to mount any sort of attack against a strong defense.
Fortunately, this turned out to be a temporary condition as the ebb and flow â€” mostly ebb â€” changed completely. Starting in the fourth quarter, both coaches took a few chances. Perhaps they figured they had lulled each other to sleep. In the end, those attending could say they got their money's worth for their entertainment dollar. Unless, of course, they overpaid a scalper.
Credit Carolina coach John Fox with opening the floodgates. He called for one of his punt returners to catch the ball and lateral it across the field to a teammate. In a tight game revolving around field position, this was a bold, daring and really stupid call.
If I owned the Panthers, Fox would have been fired by sundown. Carolina was up by seven points, and it might as well have been 28. Minnesota could do nothing. But the botched return gave the Vikings field position and allowed Brad Childress to attempt his own wacky play.
"You want to match them one for one, four plays later on the fake field goal," Childress said.
Childress' goofy play worked, and the score was tied. Finally the fans had a chance to go berserk. They had a lot of stored energy to that point.
"What a great crowd," Childress said. "I'm glad this is my home now and people have to come in here and play."
As an old boss once told me, never underestimate the value of kissing up.
Still, that left the score tied 13-13 heading into overtime. Barring a fumble or interception, a tie seemed like a sure bet. How weird would that have been?
Vince Lombardi said a tie is like kissing your sister, but the old coach must have been a sick puppy. I don't know of anyone who considers that a break-even proposition.
However, at precisely that time, the offense, such as it is, kicked in. Suddenly, the receivers were breaking off longer runs after catching short passes. And Chester Taylor, who seemed to carry 146 times, broke loose.
"They kept grinding," Childress said of his team.
That was the operative word, grinding.
"That's what it's all about," fullback Tony Richardson said. "Running the football is a grind. There's no such thing as lining up and whipping somebody."
Get used to this. These are your 2006 Minnesota Vikings: play well on defense, scramble to score a few points and hope for the best. That's going to be the pattern all season. So far, it has been effective.
If I can make a cross-sports comparison here, the Vikings are going to be like the Minnesota Wild hockey team of the past few seasons. To win, they have to play great defense, find a way to score just enough and avoid mistakes.
The margin for error is incredibly slim. If Fox hadn't called for that ridiculous punt-return play, the Vikings would have been dead in the water.
"In hindsight, it is a trick play that I wish I would have back," Fox said.
What an idiot.
Yet it did act like a shot of adrenaline. It got everyone in the stands roaring. Plus, it inspired Childress to take a chance. That is so much more exciting than Taylor up the middle for 1 yard â€¦ again and again.
The Vikings made some mistakes but nothing too serious. They tried to take a knee to end the first half and wound up in an illegal formation. I'd never seen that before. It's like trying to surrender but waving the white flag incorrectly.
And late in regulation time, cornerback Cedric Griffin was called for illegally touching the football on a punt. Under the new code of conduct, I'm pretty sure "illegal touching" is good for a one-game suspension. Maybe two.
Give the Vikings credit for sticking with it. Grind, grind, grind until an opportunity presents itself. Given a choice, most people will choose results over style.
Tom Powers can be reached at [email protected]