Sunday slant: Vikings surviving with defense

The Vikings' uninspiring offensive start shouldn't put a damper on the defense. They have high aspirations and are getting it done a little differently this year. On offense, Brett Favre might have to find a different go-to guy.

While Vikings nation anguishes over the passing offense, let's take a bye from Minnesota's favorite pastime – anticipation of impending doom (real or imagined) – and give it up for a defense showing it's one of the best in the league.

Entering Sunday's games, the Vikings are ranked fifth in the league on defense, eighth in defending both the run and the pass. Those league rankings are based on yardage, where the Vikings are averaging 276.3 yards against them (189 passing and 87.3 rushing).

But shuffle the rankings up by what really matters – scoring – and the Vikings defense looks even better. Leslie Frazier's defense is giving up only 12.7 points per game, tied for second in the league. At No. 1 is the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers (11 points per game) and tied with the Vikings are the Kansas City Chiefs. Both of those other two teams are undefeated while Minnesota sits on their bye this week with a 1-2 record.

"If you look at the Vikings, the last 10 years they've been known for a high-flying offense when you had (Randy) Moss and (Daunte) Culpepper and all those guys. The defense was kind of riding the coattails," Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams said. "But times change and we've gotten better on defense. It was kind of neck and neck for a few years and we know we have a solid front four on defense. We feel like we're the best four in football and we have to help this team go places we're trying to go. I think if we play well, the rest of the team will play well."

What makes the Vikings' ability to limit scoring even more impressive this year is that the defense has been put in bad positions by Favre's turnovers. On Sunday against Detroit, all 10 of the Lions' points came off turnovers. The previous week, in a 14-10 loss, seven of the Miami Dolphins points came when Favre's arm was hit in the end zone, causing a fumble that the Dolphins recovered for a touchdown.

Despite those first two losses, the defense played well enough to win and the players on that side of the ball are encouraged by what they have seen in their first three outings.

"We've got a chance to be really good, for sure," said linebacker Ben Leber, who had one of the team's two interceptions last Sunday. "There's no reason why we can't be (the best), given the history we've had with each other, the fact that we've been together for so long and we trust one another. We have all the makings to be a great defense, but we've got to go out and prove it." Through three games, they have done that, but they know the season is just getting started.

"Talk to me in November, maybe December, (and) I can give you a better scope on (how good we can be)," Williams said. "If we don't improve in the standings and as far as stat-wise, you can't say it was a better defense."

This year, they are accomplishing their success a little differently – so far, anyway – than they did last year.

Last year, part of the Vikings' defensive success was built on sacks. They led the league with 48. This year, they are only 23rd with four sacks through three games.

But the defense will trade in all the other rankings – sacks, yards and anything else – for wins, and on Monday there were several references to this utopian NFL axiom: "If they don't score, they can't win."

"If we start winning games because we're playing great defense, then yeah, it's going to be a thing of pride for us," Leber said.

The Vikings defense is trying it's best to accomplish that, despite the unsavory position they've been put in by turnovers.

THE NEW GO-TO GUY?

It's been crystal clear how much Brett Favre misses Pro Bowl receiver Sidney Rice, his 83 catches and 1,312 yards, but Favre is starting to find other "go-to" guys who are very different in their skills.

Adrian Peterson is becoming more and more a third-down back and leads the team with 13 receptions. Not surprisingly, tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is also proving to be a much-targeted option and might lead the team in receptions if he wasn't limited so badly last week with a hamstring injury.

Now Favre and his arm might have to rely more and more on Percy Harvin. The second-year receiver is second in catches with 12 and had the longest touchdown reception of the season last week when he dove for a 24-yarder in the end zone.

Favre believes Harvin is just scratching the surface in his knowledge at playing receiver in the NFL, and the two of them didn't have much time to get on the same page. Shortly after Favre belatedly arrived at Winter Park this year, Harvin collapsed on the practice field. A couple weeks later, he was playing in the third preseason game and the two are still trying to find symmetry where they are reading the same route options, but there's no doubt Harvin has the skills.

"I don't think he's completely, fully up to speed system-wise because of the turns he missed during training camp and because of the fact that he came back a little later than Brett was back," Vikings coach Brad Childress said. "I think we'll see him round into form a little bit further down the line. Specifically, just not having to think as much, just being able to play fast, because he can play fast because he's not thinking."

If the Vikings can survive somewhere around .500 with the defense dominating and Harvin developing, they might just get on a roll when Rice returns. If that happens, they could end the angst of fans across the region.


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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