Three coordinators. Three challenges.
As the Vikings face another must-win game to get back into the playoff discussion (at this point, only for the second wild card discussion), the Vikings' coordinators – Bill Musgrave, Fred Pagac and Mike Priefer – all face their challenges heading into Sunday's game.
For Musgrave, it entails trying to fix a passing offense that has ranked near the bottom of the NFL all season long. He may have found a new weapon in wide receiver Devin Aromashodu. Coming into the season, it was expected that Bernard Berrian would be the team's primary deep threat. Instead, Berrian has just two receptions through five games and Aromashodu has put together back-to-back games in which he made a big play deep down the field. He has just four receptions, but has averaged 30 yards per catch, and Musgrave said his challenge is to try to find more ways to incorporate Aromashodu in the passing game on his homecoming to Chicago.
"He's given us a spark for sure," Musgrave said. "The emergence of Devin has helped achieve some chunks (of yardage) and we're always looking for chunks of yardage. Devin's had two (big gainers) the last two games. We'd love to build on that and keep featuring him as long as we can."
Musgrave defended his pass offense, which has been inconsistent at best. He said there are flickers of improvement, but the team has yet to come up with staple plays and receivers. With talent like Percy Harvin, Visanthe Shiancoe and Kyle Rudolph getting underutilized, Musgrave said the team is trying to expand its offense.
"We always want to expand it," Musgrave said. "We've done some good things, but we want to do more good things. We want to have more points. We're not so concerned about yards and other statistics. We just want the points. We're always torn – most coaches are – of being able to hang your hat on certain concepts and do things you're awfully good at and make the defense stop you and also be able to be diverse and not being predictable in any regard."
Being predictable is something Pagac wants to make Chicago, because, in many respects, the Bears have the same offense that the Vikings faced last year. Asked if he has seen much different from the Bears team that won the NFC North, earned a first-round playoff bye and hosted the NFC Championship Game last year and the team that has struggled out of the gate and lost three of its last four games, Pagac said there isn't all that much differing last year's champs and this year's team that finds itself playing for its season in mid-October.
"It's similar," Pagac said of the different offenses. "Obviously, they have some key players you have to be cued in on – Matt Forte for sure. A high percentage of the time he is going to have the ball and he gets a lot out of himself. He makes the offense run. As far as pass threats, you have Johnny Knox and Devin Hester and Earl Bennett. Forte and Jay Cutler are playing very well right now. Cutler is making throws all over the field and keeping plays alive with his feet. He is a good football player and it is going to be a big challenge for us."
Pagac said that the key to stopping the Bears will be stopping Forte. While every defensive coach says a goal is always to make an offense one-dimensional by taking away the running game, Forte is such a dominant figure in the Bears offense – he has 82 percent of Chicago's running back carries and has as many receptions (30) as the next two Bears players combined – that shutting him down could, in effect, bring the entire Bears offense to a screeching halt.
"When you talk about setting up defenses, you talk about taking away some of their playmakers," Pagac said. "You try to make people beat you left-handed and you go from there. He is one of their playmakers, so we are going to be eye-balling him and we are going to know where he is at most of the time and hopefully we can make those plays when (they) arise."
Both Pagac and Priefer will be assigned to stopping Devin Hester, who is a starting wide receiver in the Chicago offense. But his value in changing a game is primarily as a return man. He has scored a whopping 15 return touchdowns, including three against the Vikings and, when asked about his experience with Hester, Priefer ducked the question.
"I don't want to talk about," Priefer said. "It was not a good day for me. It was 2007, I can give you that hint, but that's about all I'm talking about. That was a nightmare for about three months."
Priefer was the special-teams coach of the Kansas City Chiefs at the time and Hester lit up his return coverage teams in a 20-10 Chicago win. He had a 73-yard punt return that proved to be the game-winning points, giving the Bears a 14-0 lead in the second quarter. He also returned a punt 31 yards that set up a second-half field goal and had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that was called back due to a non-related holding penalty.
Priefer doesn't have extensive experience dealing with Hester, but knows first hand how dangerous he can be.
"He's the best in the business," Priefer said. "I watched tape on him all off-season, studying our division opponents because I didn't know (the NFC North) very well. Studying this week all of his kickoff and punt returns from this year and last year, there are so many good ones. The reason he is so special is he's got great vision, which all great returners have. He's exceptionally quick and explosive and sets up his returns so well. He can make the whole kickoff or punt team think he's going to the right and, all of a sudden, he's going left. Or he can make them think he's going middle and then he goes left or right. He's exceptional at that, which makes him even more dangerous than the average returner."
He wouldn't say what he plans to do to stop Hester, but did say that, if the Bears go solely off of game film of what the Vikings have done in punt and kick coverage so far this season, they may end up being surprised Sunday night.
"I don't want to sit here and let Chicago know what we're going to do," Priefer said. "I will let you know that we are going to change our game plan a little bit from what we've been doing. We're going to have to do that. (Hester) is that good."
All three aspects of the Vikings team will have to be hitting on all cylinders to beat the Bears Sunday. They have lost nine of their last 10 road games against Chicago and each of the coordinators has his own set of challenges coming in. The extent to which each of them can succeed in their goals will go a long way to determining whether the Vikings come out of Sunday's game at 2-4 heading home for a showdown with the Packers or 1-5 and on the brink of playoff elimination with two- and-a-half months remaining in the 2011 season.
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.
Three coordinated challenges
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