Huge challenge for Bills' D

It wasn't pretty when the Bills hosted the Vikings this preseason. It was only a three-point loss, but the defense gave up 293 yards of offense in the first half – when most of the starters were playing!

Sure, Buffalo used vanilla schemes. But Minnesota wasn't doing anything too crazy itself. So with both teams making a conscious effort not to show too much because they played a month later during the regular season, how did the Vikes gain that much yardage through two quarters?

Maybe they did show too much.

More likely, however, quarterback Daunte Culpepper, wide receiver Randy Moss and running back Michael Bennett are just very good. In fact, the Vikings are probably better at the offensive skill positions than the Bills are.

But like the Bills, they do have line problems. Bryant McKinnie, the team's No. 1 draft pick, had yet to sign as of Sept. 5, which meant right tackle Lewis Kelly was going to play left tackle. But Kelly is mourning the sudden death of his pregnant wife, Rakiva, who contracted a rare blood disorder while four months pregnant on Aug. 25. The team gave him some time off and he will likely be out for the Bills game. Kelly attempted to come back during the season-opening week, but he was not emotionally prepared to do so.

With Korey Stringer's death in 2001, Kelly's ordeal is the second tragedy to hit the Vikings and their tight-knit offensive line in two years.

"We're very concerned with the state of Lewis Kelly's mind," first-year head coach Mike Tice said. "I could not imagine the type of pain he is suffering through right now."

When he tried to come back, Kelly demonstrated his fragile emotional state by explaining how his strong Christian faith kept him from killing himself. Clearly, he is hurting beyond belief.

When Buffalo runs

Buffalo had its best preseason rushing attack against Minnesota when Travis Henry ran seven times for 50 yards. The Vikings' front-four should be better than that. It features left end Kenny Mixon, an import from the Dolphins who is considered a run-stopping specialist and under tackle Chris Hovan, also a noted run stopper.

In addition, Minnesota signed Raiders castoff Greg Biekert – a salary cap casualty – late in the preseason to start at middle linebacker. Biekert is a high energy, high-motor run stuffer who should help make running between the tackles very difficult against the Vikings' 4-3 scheme. He was not signed when the Vikings played the Bills in the preseason.

Along with Hovan at tackle, nose tackle Fred Robbins is in his second-year of starting. He was a second-round pick out of Wake Forest in 2000 and is a pretty good player.

Overall, there are nine new starters on defense, but mostly upgrades from last season. And defensive coordinator Willie Shaw is highly regarded for his team-defense philosophy, so while there are all kinds of people at all kinds of new positions, Minnesota should be vastly improved from last year's poor showing, particularly with Biekert running the show up front, which he did when Shaw was Oakland's defensive coordinator.

Edge: Even

When Buffalo passes

Vikings right ends Lance Johnstone and Lorenzo Bromell are pretty good. Johnstone has been a sacker in the past with Oakland. Bromell came over from Miami, where he recorded 6.5 sacks in 2001. He's very quick. Both are interchangeable, though Johnstone is listed as the starter.

Second-year-man Patrick Chukwurah, who last year was shuffled between end and linebacker, is now playing linebacker full time. The team wants to unleash him as a pass rusher too. Chukwurah is quick and physical.

The front-seven has experience. New linebacker Henri Crockett, from Atlanta, should be able to rush more because he moved to the weak side to accommodate Biekert. Crockett, however, was not happy with the move.

Minnesota will blitz on occasion, but is capable of generating a pass rush with their front-four alone. Hovan must be watched in the middle.

Left corner Corey Chavous, from Arizona, is a good coverman, but does not intercept many passes. Second-year man Eric Kelly plays right corner and was decent as a rookie.

The safeties – veteran free safety Ronnie Bradford, from Atlanta, and rookie Willie Offord, a third-rounder from South Carolina – are new and can be exploited in the middle. That's good for the Bills' tight ends.

If Vikes don't get a pass rush, Buffalo will be able to pass on them.

Edge: Even

When Minnesota runs

Last year, running back Michael Bennett ran behind Jimmy Kleinsasser, a tight end who converted to an H-back/fullback role. Bennett gained 682 yards on 172 attempts for a 4.0-yard average. He also caught 29 balls for 226 yards. Bennett is a dual threat.

Kleinsasser will be more of a blocking tight end this season in the Vikings' two tight-end base offense – with veteran Byron Chamberlain as the team's No. 1 tight end. The two-tight end system gave the Bills fits last year against Indianapolis at the RCA Dome, in defending the passing and running game.

One thing to watch is how Bennett progresses through the game. He may not be 100 percent because he did suffer a sprained MCL in the preseason.

What also makes Minnesota difficult to defense is Culpepper's escapability when pass protection breaks down. He is capable of running for long yardage as he proved against the Bills in August. He gained 34 yards on seven carries – a couple of which were on key third down plays.

In general, while the Vikings offensive line is in turmoil, Culpepper's athleticism is a huge plus. The Bills don't have that luxury with the relatively immobile Drew Bledsoe playing behind a line that is young, inexperienced and lacks playing time together.

Edge: Vikings

When Minnesota passes

Daunte Culpepper to Randy Moss is among the best young quarterback-wide receiver combinations in the league. They're just two exciting players.

One of Moss' favorite patterns is a crossing pattern off a quick slant in which there is some space to get loose because a CB is playing off of him. He usually ends up turning that into a long gain as he did against the Bills in the preseason. Moss can make defensive backs fall down with a precise cut, then make the catch, and turn upfield in effortless fashion.

D'Wayne Bates starts opposite him, replacing Cris Carter. The Bears waived Bates this off-season after three disappointing years. He was a talent in college.

When Minnesota goes to three wide receivers, watch out for Derrick Alexander, a pickup from Kansas City. Alexander caught a 32-yard pass against Buffalo in the preseason and has reliable hands.

Certainly, there is concern along the line – left guard and ex-Bill Corbin Lacina is a starter but has ankle problems. He probably won't be 100 percent.

If Buffalo has a chance at establishing a pass rush early in the season, it could be against the Vikings because they're in transition. But talent at skill positions will be tough to overcome.

Edge: Vikings

Special teams

Kicker Doug Brien was awful in the preseason, going 1 for 5 on kicks. That forced Minnesota to claim Tim Seder off of waivers from Dallas, just in case Brien continues to slump. Brien has a good leg on kickoffs, able to kick it into the end zone early in games before his leg seems to tire. Punter Kyle Richardson is a solid directional kicker who came aboard from the Ravens. Coverage teams are about average. Last year Minnesota allowed a 21.5-yard average on kickoffs, including one for a touchdown. On punts it was a little worse, allowing a 10.8-yard average. Rookie Nick Davis is the designated returner, though a hamstring injury could hamper him. He averaged 17.5 yards on two preseason punt returns (obviously aided by a 35-yard return vs. Buffalo) and 23.6 yards on kickoffs. If he's sidelined, Bates will likely be the returner.

Edge: Vikings

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