Tim Yotter, Publisher, VikingUpdate.com: First, he is a young guy who immediately commands the respect of the players. He just has “it,” that presence about him. He knows exactly what he wants and he drilled it into the players from the start. His defense has been very disciplined from the start, although not too complicated that the players couldn’t adjust to a new system quickly. At this point, I consider him a top-notch coordinator who might need another year or two of proving it before he is chosen as a head coach. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start to get interviews in a year and be a head coach in two or three years. He’s high-energy all the way, and players seem to thrive off that enthusiasm, but it will be interesting to see how that translates as a head coach.
Doug Farrar: The Vikings defense currently ranks fifth in yards allowed per game, but the numbers against the run are far more dominant. Tell us about the Minnesota front four, and how they get the job done. Are they at a disadvantage with a smaller, possibly faster first-burst guy like Maurice Morris, even though he’s not at Shaun Alexander’s level?
Tim Yotter: I don’t see a whole lot of running backs having success against this defensive line unless they’ve got an absolutely dominating offensive line. Pat Williams is a large man with incredible quickness for his size. I’d classify him as being able to match a running back’s initial first step. Over the course of more than a year, I’ve been impressed and puzzled at how a guy who is probably closer to 345 than his listed weight of 317 can have such good initial quickness. He won’t chase backs down from behind, but he’s very good at finding them in the middle in closed quarters. Put him next to Kevin Williams, who is playing better this year after a down season in 2005, and the Vikings have a nice complement of defensive tackles – one who’s better against the run and one (Kevin) who is good at disrupting the quarterback.
The defensive ends haven’t been big tackling machines, but they are aided by the Vikings’ new, quicker defense, where the linebackers and the rest of the pursuit is now able to get to the ball carriers on the outside. That’s attributable to Tomlin’s proclamation that each of his front seven defenders had to lose weight to gain quickness for his defense. They’ve done that and the results have been superb against the run this year.
Doug Farrar: Led by E.J. Henderson, the linebackers have seemed very impressive this season. Are they overachieving, or is this a potential strength for years to come?
Tim Yotter: I don’t think the linebackers have made huge strides yet, I just think they have become more consistent and are being put in much better positions by the defensive scheme. Henderson is in the playmaking position in this defense, just like Derrick Brooks in Tampa Bay, albeit Brooks has made far more plays over the course of time. I still believe this linebacker corps can get much better as they start to recognize more opportunities in defending the pass. But I think the addition of Ben Leber has added consistency and the return of Napoleon Harris has added some spark to the middle.
Doug Farrar: The expensive secondary still doesn’t seem to be producing the results desired. Where are the holes in the Vikings pass defense? They’ve given up over 200 yards per game through the air – middle of the pack in the league – but only three touchdowns. Is it a “bend but don’t break” philosophy?
Tim Yotter: There is a little bit of that philosophy at times, but I think their quickness really comes to light in the red zone. They just haven’t given offenses too many opportunities with open receivers or blown coverages in the tighter quarters near the end zone. I’d agree that they can get better, especially in coverage. Antoine Winfield is really one of the most impressive tacklers I’ve ever seen at cornerback. He’s a small guy, but he’s an impressively consistent ankle-biter who brings down backs or receivers of any size. While he doesn’t lay the thunderous hits, he rarely misses. In pass coverage, his size can be exploited by bigger receivers. Fred Smoot has improved after a bad year in 2005, but he can still get much better to live up to his contract.
The biggest issue with the secondary has been the lack of turnovers in the first quarter of the season. Safety Darren Sharper went to the Pro Bowl last year with nine interceptions, but he, Dwight Smith and Winfield only have one interception each after five games. That’s the next step for this defense, and it started in the right direction in their last game against Detroit when they score two defensive touchdowns.
Doug Farrar: Where do you see this team when the 2006 season is over? Are they potential Super Bowl contenders or a squad with a few pieces still missing?
Tim Yotter: That’s an interesting question because they could be a deep playoff contender if they can figure out how to score on offense or they could continue to struggle there and just be a fringe playoff team. On the negative side, they have already had four defenders put on injured reserve who were expected to make significant contributions, so they can’t afford to give much more there. But if they can stay healthy, their defense can keep them in most games.
They are still thin at receiver and that won’t change anymore this season, so they will have to develop their own at that position. Given that this is a new offense for them, that is the light of hope at the end of tunnel, but the question is how long that tunnel is. If they jell on offense by December, they could make a run. If they don’t, they still could get to the playoffs with a much easier schedule ahead of them in November and December, but without some scoring consistency on offense I’d expect a quality playoff team to be able to beat them. So, it all rests on their ability to become more proficient offensively.