2004 is full of promise for a franchise that had lost its way under then head coach Dennis Green. Tice has instilled a tough mindset to a franchise that was more finesse and less power.
Gone are the days when the Vikings threw the ball all over the field hoping to outscore their opponents. In is the power running game featuring three runners who could start for most teams and a huge line that dominates opposing defenses.
With the offense controlling the ball, the Vikings have focused a considerable amount of energy trying to upgrade a defense that for the last two seasons has been ranked in the lower half of the NFL. New defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell believes in push from the middle of the defense and pressure from the outside and if he can get some of his young studs to perform, this team could be very scary.
Offense: In 2003 this unit ranked number one overall in the NFL. It is led by QB Dante Culpepper who is still learning the nuances of his position. Last season, Culpepper threw for 3,479 yards and 25 TD’s despite missing two games with an ankle injury. His 65% completion rate was the best of his career and his 11 INT’s were the lowest of his career. He is a huge man topping out at almost 270 pounds, but he is light on his feet and he has the ability to hurt teams with his legs, running for an additional 422 yards and four TD’s. Culpepper will still make the occasional errant throw or the wrong decision, but 2004 is likely to be the year that Culpepper establishes himself as either the best or one of the top three QB’s in the entire league.
When Culpepper drops back to pass, he has the deepest corps of wideouts to throw to in the league. Superstar WR Randy Moss continues to make plays and is a difference maker in this offense. In 2003 Moss accounted for 111 catches and 1,632 yards (both second in the NFL), while also leading the league in touchdown receptions with 17. He has the speed to get deep and the height and strength to go up and fight for balls. He still lacks discipline in his route-running and takes plays off, but he is by far the most dangerous wideout in the NFL today.
Opposite Moss will be seven-year veteran Marcus Robinson. Robinson had a good season in Baltimore in 2003, catching 31 passes for 451 yards and 6 TD’s. His lack of production can be blamed on the instability at QB in the Raven organization last season. He is a big target who specializes in deep balls. With Moss being first and foremost in defense’s game plans, Robinson could have a big year.
WR’s Kelly Campbell and Nate Burleson are two solid wideouts at the third and fourth spots. Burleson excels in the middle of the field in the short and intermediate routes. Campbell is another burner who can get behind defenses and is a threat in the open field. Look for a lot of four-receiver sets from the Vikings as they try to spread the field, hoping to open up running lanes for their plethora of backs.
At running back, Minnesota has three different options that all have the ability to carry the load at any given time. The starter is RB Michael Bennett. Bennett can almost literally fly - he is likely the fastest player in the NFL and he is a threat to take it the distance on every single play. Bennett is best when he can get the corner and run away from people, but he has improved his skills as an inside runner and his blocking is much improved.
Moe Williams is the short-yardage and third down back. While Bennett was rehabbing a foot injury, Williams started and led the team in rushing for 745 yards and five TD’s. Second-year RB Onterrio Smith was a steal in the fourth round of the 2003 Draft and he would likely be a starter on several teams. Smith runs well between the tackles and his vision is excellent. He needs to work on catching the ball better, but that is usually the case with college running backs.
Tice is an ex-offensive line coach and the men up front represent his tough mentality. The star of the line is LT Bryant McKinnie. McKinnie is huge (6’8”, 350 lbs) and he just engulfs pass-rushers. If he improves his technique in run blocking, to match his outstanding pass protection skills, he will be considered one of the top two or three offensive linemen in the league. At LG is Chris Liewinski, who combines with McKinnie to form one of the best left sides in football. C Matt Birk is the leader of the group and he is very athletic for a pivot man. RT Mike Rosenthal and RG David Dixon are solid, but not as dominant as the other three. Where the Vikings will struggle is if one of their starters gets hurt. They lack depth along their line and may look for some veteran help as the season draws closer.
Defense: This unit should see improvement if only because the Vikings have focused primarily on improving an under-manned bunch. They have brought in several promising draft choices and some key free agents, as well as Cottrell, and all should bring this unit up to respectability.
The front four is the key to Cottrell’s system. He expects push from his defensive tackles and he has two horses who specialize in that, in Chris Hovan and Kevin Williams. Hovan is a tireless worker who is the emotional leaders of the defense. Williams was a standout as a rookie, registering 10.5 sacks, 52 tackles, and one INT. Williams can track down plays all over the field and he runs well for a big man. The Vikings are hoping he doesn’t have a sophomore slump.
On the outside six-year DE Kenny Mixon holds down one of the spots and it is expected that rookie DE Kenechi Udeze will hold down the other spot. Mixon plays well against the run, but he had only four sacks and needs to produce more of a rush. Udeze is suited better for the strong-side and that is where he will begin his career.
The linebackers are athletic and quick, but the middle will be manned by a youngster. Second-year MLB E.J. Henderson saw little time last year behind, now retired, Greg Biekert. Henderson adds another dimension to the position because he doesn’t need to come off the field when teams go to passing formations. He is a sure tackler who should be able to step in and play at a high level.
OLB Chris Claiborne was the Vikings’ big free agent signing in 2003 and while he had a solid season, he expects to have an even better one in 2004. Cottrell’s system is perfectly suited to Claiborne’s abilities and athleticism and he will able to attack more. Michael Nattiel replaces the aging Henri Crocket and he should upgrade the position with his speed.
The secondary was upgraded immensely with the acquisition of cover corner Antoine Winfield during free agency. Last year, when he was with the Buffalo Bills, he locked down opposing wideouts and led the Bills with 12 passes defensed, 109 tackles and one INT. He comes up and plays the run well, but his best asset is his ability to turn and run with the wide receiver. On the other side will be two-year veteran Brian Williams. Williams will see a ton of action with Winfield on the other side, but he appears to be up to the task, registering 70 tackles and 5 INT’s in 2003
The safeties are manned by two more players who are standouts at their positions. Six-year veteran SS Corey Chavous is a solid tackler and a ballhawk, finishing second on the team with 85 tackles and second in the NFL with eight INT’s. FS Brian Russell tied for the league lead in interceptions with 9 and led the Vikings with 87 tackles.
Minnesota’s defense finished seventh in the NFL in takeaways with 35 and second in interceptions with 28, so look for Cottrell to focus on causing more fumbles and letting his defensive backs continue to make plays.
Special Teams: During the offseason the second biggest free agent signing for the Vikings was P Darren Bennett. Bennett, who is 39, has lost some leg, but still ranks in the upper echelon of punters in the league. K Aaron Elling had an up and down season, as might be expected from a young kicker, but the Vikings believe in their second-year kicker and hope he can improve on kickoffs before the season starts.
The last time the Seahawks and Vikings met: This was not the happiest of games for the Hawks. The 2003 season had started off promisingly, but the team had faltered big-time on the road. Their visit to the Metrodome on the first weekend of December was one of the low-points, a 34-7 drubbing, for a team that was eventually headed to the playoffs.
Stumbling right out of the blocks, the Seahawks fumbled on the first carry by RB Shaun Alexander and that was only a harbinger of things to come.
WR Randy Moss caught two long touchdowns (47, 43) and had eight receptions for 133 as he burned third-year CB Ken Lucas all day long.
Vikings WR Kelly Campbell turned rookie CB Marcus Trufant around enough to make a 43 TD grab seven seconds into the fourth quarter that all but sealed up the game.
The game was atypical for the Seahawks as they only mustered 258 total yards of offense and 13 first downs. Seattle lost the lone Alexander fumble and QB Matt Hasselbeck threw two INT’s, with one being returned for an 80 yard touchdown by OLB Michael Nattiel.
QB Dante Culpepper enjoyed little pressure from the Seahawks defense and he completed 21 of 33 passes for 274 yards and three TD’s.
Following this game, the Seahawks won two of their final three to enter the playoffs while the Vikings lost two of their next three and finished out of the playoffs. Like that old saying goes…”Any given Sunday”.
2004 Projection: If you want to know which coach has the hottest seat right now, you could be looking at him in Tice. Owner Red McCombs and VP of Football Operations Rob Brzezinski have gone out and gotten some very talented players and given Tice what he needs to succeed.
Tice has the horses on offense and enough playmakers on defense to make a long run into the playoffs.
The questions are…Can Henderson adequately fill the middle linebacker spot? Will Williams and Hovan be the disruptors that Cottrell’s system calls for? Is Culpepper ready to take his next steps toward being one of the best QB’s in the league? Can Bennett stay healthy for an entire season?
Tice had better hope that he has this team in position to win the NFC North by the end of the season…It is theirs for the taking. If they can win their first two games (Dallas at home and Philadelphia on the road) look for them to be undefeated heading into a big-time matchup in Indianapolis in week nine.
Their schedule and talent
add up to a 12-4 season and a deep run in the playoffs. If that doesn’t
happen then some lucky coach is likely to be at the helm of this talented franchise
.NET Reporter Scott Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.