Defenses scoring early knockouts

Defenses across the league are feeling pretty good about themselves after a low-scoring Week 1, but those days are expected to last, according to several Vikings.

The start to the 2010 season had a lot of Vikings fans asking the same question – what's wrong? The Vikings managed just nine points in a 14-9 loss to the Saints in last week's opener and it couldn't be attributed simply to Sidney Rice not being in the lineup or Chester Taylor not being available on third downs. But, as the weekend rolled along, the Vikings learned they were far from alone in being inconsistent on offense.

It really shouldn't as come as a big surprise that scores are down. First-team offenses have spent very little time together during the preseason games and only once were asked to play 30 minutes, much less the 60 minutes needed once the games start up for real. Like shaking off rust, most offenses don't jump out of the gate hitting on all cylinders.

"The fact is that is takes a little bit more to get going on offense," tackle Phil Loadholt said. "If one guy does the wrong thing on offense, a play gets messed up even if the other 10 guys are doing something right. Defenses can have one guy mess up and make up for it by having someone else making a play. Because we don't work a lot together, it takes an offense longer to gel and get into a good rhythm, so it doesn't surprise me that scores were down."

Historically speaking, there are more lower-scoring games early in a season because offenses don't have their timing down, but this season has been even more pronounced. In 2008, 20 of the 32 teams scored 21 points or fewer in Week 1, including four teams that won games with 20 points or fewer and another that finished in a 10-10 tie. In 2009, 18 teams scored 21 or fewer and five teams won despite scoring 20 or fewer points. As pronounced as those numbers were, 2010 has been even more stunningly low in scoring. Of the 32 teams, 23 of them scored 21 or fewer points, and aside from the 14-9 score in the Vikings-Saints game, there were Week 1 final scores of 17-14, 15-10, 19-14, 15-9 in overtime, 17-13, 13-7, 10-0 and 21-14 – as nine of the 16 winning teams got a victory without scoring more than 21 points.

Of the 16 games played, 11 of them were decided by seven points or fewer – the most games that close in Week 1 in league history. All four of the nationally televised games fit into that majority – the four games were decided by a total of 19 points.

So what's the problem? According to kicker Ryan Longwell, the need to get players evaluated during the preseason and the mixing and matching of combinations that are inherent to that process aren't conducive for offenses putting their best foot forward.

"It's tough to get in rhythm when you have a bunch of moving parts like you do in the preseason," Longwell said. "With 80 guys that you're trying to get on the field and getting reps, it's hard to get in a rhythm and in timing. Offense is based on timing. Defenses tend to be a little further ahead and it shows early on. It puts more pressure on the kicking game because you anticipate that games are going to be lower scoring and close."

Why are defenses at such an early advantage? It's nothing new. Jim Kleinsasser, the longest-tenured Viking, said he has seen it every year he's been in the league and that, while the faces may change, the results end up essentially the same.

"On offense, it's all about timing and getting extensive time working together," Kleinsasser said. "On defense, all they do is tee up and come after you. You'd like to come banging right out of the gate, but a lot of times it takes that first game or two to get into a flow. You don't want to have it that way, but when you're getting your timing down and moving guys around in the preseason, you don't get that rhythm. Every year when training camp starts, it seems the defense is ahead of the offense and, once we start playing for real, the same thing always seems to happen."

For the defensive players, they understand why the offensive inequity is there. The combination of not playing starters extensively and running vanilla offenses that don't give away any insider intelligence has resulted in low-scoring games and a collective victory for defenses in a game consistently tailored to coddling to offenses.

"It usually takes a couple of games for offenses to get their timing down," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "The scores were low – teams winning with 10 points and 14 points. What is strange is that this is an offensive league and all of the rules have been geared for offenses to score a lot of points. The offense doesn't get much of a chance to work together in the preseason. The first game you get a series or two. The second game you play a quarter. The third game you get a half and the fourth game a lot of teams don't play their starters. So, there hasn't been a lot of work they do together during those four preseason games and it shows up in Week 1. To top that, you don't show anything on tape that other teams can pick up on, so when you actually go out there for 60 minutes, it can look a little ragged."

In the last two seasons, the scores of games went up markedly in Week 2 of the 2008 season – seven winning teams scored 29 or more points and three of them topped 40 points. In Week 2 of the 2009 season, 11 winning teams scored 27 or more points. The salad days for the defensive dominance didn't last long and the same is expected this year.

Linebacker Ben Leber said that the good times defenses had in Week 1 likely won't last long. It was fun while it lasted, but the reality of the NFL is likely going to start setting in this week as the offenses get more in gear and the chemistry builds.

"Maybe it was a break for the defenses," Leber said. "You can compare it to baseball, where it takes pitchers time to get into their groove and hitters are swinging away. As defensive players, we want low-scoring games all the time – at least having our opponents be low-scoring. Believe me, that will change as the season goes on and the offenses get comfortable and into a rhythm. You can't just create that kind of chemistry. It builds from week to week every year and it will be coming. Defenses can just enjoy that the process does take time and the scores last week tended to prove that out."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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