10 QUESTIONS Part 2 - Patriots at Vikings
Viking Update Publisher Tim Yotter is this week's guest on 10 questions.
5) When Robert Smith retired (2000), the Vikings seemed to go through a litany of running backs with only one 1,000-yard rusher (Michael Bennett in 2001). Since 2002 when Tice took over fulltime, the team actually regressed in rushing yards from a high of about 156 per game to a pedestrian 92 per game last season. The team is averaging 116 per game so far in 2006. What would you attribute that improvement to? Coaching, offensive line changes, new running backs or something else?
To add to the frustration of the running game in the Tice era, you should note that he was a former offensive line coach and there were a number of games over that time that Culpepper was the leading rusher. The offensive line struggled badly last year with Pro Bowl center Matt Birk out with injury and a rotating cast at all positions except left tackle (Bryant McKinnie). This year, with McKinnie back, Hutchinson next to him at left guard and Birk returning to health, the left side of the line has been their meat and potatoes in the running game. The right side still needs some work, but they're improving as well. They have also had a rotation of running backs in the past, as Bennett and Mewelde Moore struggled with injuries and Onterrio Smith struggled to stay off the suspended list. Now, Chester Taylor is the workhorse, getting the most carries of any back in the league. His average isn't eye-popping (4.3 yards), but the Vikings have been committed to the run in all but one game.
4) Minnesota has a pair of former Patriots players on the roster in WR Bethel Johnson and TE Jermaine Wiggins. While we know what Johnson has done recently, how has Wiggins fared while in Minnesota?. It seems like he's been a big part of the team's offensive game plan.
He has been their leading pass-catcher the last two years, but this year Wiggins doesn't seem to be getting used as much. Some of that probably has to do with the amount of rushes the team has, but I'm still surprised he isn't used more in this West Coast offense. To date, he is averaging only three catches a game. In years past, it was more like a four- or five-catch average.
3) What were the biggest off-season losses for the Vikings and how have the team's replacements fared?
Many people questioned the trade of Culpepper, especially for only a second-round draft pick, but so far he hasn't done anything in Miami. And I'm not sure he would have done real well in Childress' offense, anyway. Johnson is a short-term fit for this year and next while they try to develop second-round draft pick Tarvaris Jackson, who had a strong rookie off-season. Taylor has proved very durable through six games at running back, and the revamped offensive line looks like it is starting to come together. After the Patriots, the Vikings play some lesser defenses, so that should help their rankings as well. Defensively, Ben Leber has been added to the linebacker corps and been solid, along with having a knack for blitzing, and safety Dwight Smith has been good in the Tampa-2 defense he learned so well while playing for the Bucs.
2) Tom Brady and the Patriots have a dual running back threat in Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon to go along with a group of receivers - with the exception of Troy Brown - who have never played a full season in New England. This has created a strategy where the Patriots either run the ball or rely heavily on their tight ends and backs for mismatches against the defense. How will the Vikings fare against the likes of Ben Watson, David Thomas and Kevin Faulk in pass patterns? What do you think Minnesota will do to pressure Brady?
The one mention there that has the best opportunity for a big game is Watson. To date, the Vikings haven't really faced a great pass-catching tight end, and I'd still say the Vikings' linebackers are bit unproven against a true playmaker at that position. That will be one of the matchups to watch. The key, though, is Minnesota's team speed on defense. They are really getting to the ball this year, coming off of defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin's proclamation that his front seven had to lose weight in the off-season. It has dramatically increased the team speed and reduced the number of big plays teams can get off of them. Their modus operandi on defense has been to blitz much more than a typical Tampa-2 base early in the game, try to get the lead and then sit back in their Cover-2 later in games. I'd say Brady is one of the more savvy quarterbacks they have faced this year, so it will be interesting to see if that remains their plan against him. My guess is, based on what they tried with Hasselbeck in Seattle, they will blitz more often in the first half than the second.
1) Prediction for the game
Patriots, 17-16. The Vikings haven't really learned to excel at home yet this year, which is strange for a 4-2 team. Later in the season, I'd be inclined to take the Vikings, but I'm still waiting to be certain that they can score touchdowns consistently on offense.
Prediction for the Vikings for the rest of the season
10-6. The schedule lightens up considerably, and so long as they continue to improve every game, this could be a team to contend with by playoff time.
Top 3 teams in the NFC / AFC
NFC: Chicago, Seattle, Minnesota. Expect Chicago to fall a little bit without Mike Brown and as Rex Grossman cools down. Expect Seattle to get better when Shaun Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck return. Expect Minnesota's record in the second half of the season to get them into the playoffs, and if they can find a passing game that scores touchdowns they could be dangerous.
AFC: Indianapolis, New England, Baltimore. The Indy offense can still dominate without their Edge, but the loss of Mike Doss could have opposing teams finding a crack in the defense. It's the Patriots with Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and a cast of solid players - enough said. The addition of Steve McNair in Baltimore was huge and eventually the Ravens defense will slip, but probably not this year yet.
Look for 10 Questions - Part One where Tim addressed the issues of Daunte Culpepper's trade, Dennis Green and Mike Tice's coaching regimes and other poignant concerns surrounding the Patriots Monday Night Opponent.