A Resurgence Of Defense?

Vikings defensive coordinator George O'Leary is no stranger to football camps after coaching in them since 1980 in college and the NFL, and he likes the progress he saw in camps earlier this month.

In talking with players and assistant coaches, a simpler, more aggressive defense is in store for the Vikings in 2003. In talking with the man running that defense, George O'Leary, it sounds like personnel will make the difference.

"It's a players league and players need to be more aggressive. I thought we played the run real well (in 2002)," O'Leary told VU at the conclusion of the Vikings' June developmental camps. "Obviously the passing game was a problem and we've got to eliminate penalties on our side of the ball.

"Right now what I see the difference as, when someone makes a mistake on the defense the other 10 guys know who did it and what the mistake was, which means they're starting to learn, they're starting to learn the chemistry of what's going on."

In that one statement, O'Leary summed up the changes that the Vikings hope to see this year on defense -- simplification, aggressiveness and better personnel.

Whichever one of those changes comes to the forefront most, the Vikings are hopeful their defense is in for a year that returns them to greatness -- but they'd probably settle for above average after the last few years of milling around the bottom of the league's statistical categories.

In 2002, the Vikings finished with the 26th-ranked defense in the league, 10th against the run and 29th against the pass. They were 30th in points allowed and 31st in turnover ratio.

Those numbers are a big reason for the free-agent additions on defense, especially at cornerback, where Denard Walker and Ken Irvin are expected to be the veteran starters, with younger players like Brian Williams and Eric Kelly able to take a step back and learn. That's something they weren't able to do last year. As a rookie, Williams started seven games and Kelly, in his second year in the league, started 12 games.

"I think the two corners dictate coverage to you, as far as what you can do and can't do," O'Leary said. "I think the big thing is that we spent more time with the coverage aspects of what we're trying to get done. And we basically just added a couple more coverages that we felt we needed in the scheme. The big thing was stressing individual technique."

Up front, O'Leary also got help through the draft, not so much in full-time starters initially, but he did get quality young depth.

"Kevin Williams shows great quickness and movement for a big man. E.J. Henderson is fortunate to be able to sit behind a guy like Greg Biekert and learn the game," O'Leary said. "Kevin just needs to see things and react a little quicker, because he has great athletic ability. You just can't give him enough reps and speed reps, because that's where he needs to get things done."

That's probably true for the defense overall. With new starters at cornerback, linebacker and maybe eventually on the defensive line, it might be a challenge to get all the new personnel on the same play. After what he saw in June camps, O'Leary is OK with the progress his defense made before training camp.

"The big thing is we had a big installation this past minicamp and the players stayed up with it, so I'm really pleased with that," he said. "Obviously, you're never where you want to be. I do think they improved, but there are areas I think they need to work on, as far as their coverage and rush.

"We just install it in the morning and put it on the field. We had a good three weeks. What I always tell the players is what I see on film is either allowed or coached, so one way or the other we've got to get it corrected. If there's nothing wrong, fine."

In the NFL, it seems there are always things to correct. This year, however, it looks like the Vikings may have enough experienced defenders on the field to overcome adversity. That may be the biggest difference, with a more aggressive and simpler defense contributing to a possible resurgence of defense in Minnesota.

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