After getting off to a 4-1 start to the season, the Vikings have lost two of their last three games and those who were jumping on the bandwagon have suddenly found themselves perched on the back ready to jump off if their problems continue.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Christian Ponder has struggled and the offense has consistently lost the turnover battle. But the one thing that has been the most puzzling in recent weeks is that the Vikings run defense has been gashed. For the better part of the last decade, even in down seasons, the Vikings have been at or near the top of the NFL in run defense. Players have come and gone. Head coaches have come and gone. Coordinators and position coaches have come and gone. Through it all, one thing has remained the same – teams know that when they play the Vikings, they're going to play one of the NFL's stingiest run defenses.
But in the last three games – two of them losses – the Vikings run defense has been uncharacteristically exploited. After making a furious fourth-quarter comeback against Washington, cutting a 15-point deficit down to five and, with three minutes to play the Vikings had the Redskins facing a third-and-6 from their own 24-yard line with two timeouts remaining. One defensive stop and the Vikings had the chance for an improbable comeback. Instead, quarterback Robert Griffin III rolled out over left tackle, got a couple of blocks and was off to the races – running 76 yards for a touchdown that put the game away. It marked the first 100-yard rusher the Vikings defense had surrendered all season – to a quarterback much less. They had kept the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew and Frank Gore in check, but RG3 ran 13 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns.
It wouldn't be the last.
The following week against Arizona, the Vikings dominated the Cardinals, but No. 3 running back LaRod Stephens-Howling ran 20 times for 104 yards and a touchdown, gaining many of those yards after contact. On several of his runs, he slipped two or three tackles to gain additional yardage. Things hit bottom last week in the blowout loss to Tampa Bay. Rookie Doug Martin ran 29 times for 135 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 79 yards and another score. It was numbingly painful to watch and unexpected from the Vikings defenders.
With the Vikings heading into the most hostile of territories – the deafening collective "12th Man" in Seattle – the Vikings face running back Marshawn Lynch, who is second only to Adrian Peterson in rushing yards. The Vikings are looking to get back to the basics, which linebacker Chad Greenway believes has been missing the last few weeks.
"We started off really strong this season and, as we've gone on, we've had mistakes in ballgames that you can't have if you want to have a good run defense – especially against teams that were focused on running the football," Greenway said. "Clearly this week is no different, especially with Coach (Darrell) Bevell out there. We know how he is. They want to run the football and they have the personnel to do it. It's a good test. When you're struggling against the run like we have the last two or three weeks, all you want to do is test yourself. That's the only way to get out of your funk."
Just as offensive coordinators had to have a backup plan in place in the event the running game would get shut down, suddenly they may be looking at using the run to predicate the offense, not enhance it. Rookie safety Harrison Smith believes the Vikings' recent struggles have been due to players not doing their specific job on plays and creating a situation where big plays can happen. The team is working on correcting those mistakes and getting back to what Alan Williams and the defensive coaching staff did so well earlier in the season.
"At the end of the day, they're not going to ask us to do things we can't do," Smith said. "They're going to put us in a good position to make plays. There are 11 guys on the field, so we all work together. That's how we need to play defense."
The Vikings realize that suddenly their run defense has gone from the hunter to the hunted. They may have gotten a little full of themselves with their early success, but the Tampa Bay loss was humbling and they now expect Seattle to attempt to do much of the same and keep the Vikings defense on its heels in the role of an underdog instead of a favorite.
"It's tough every week and everyone has a new challenge," Greenway said. "Whether you travel on the road or at home – we found that out when we played a Tampa team that people thought was going to be a rollover. It just doesn't exist in this league and we understand that. It's the same for us going to out to Seattle. I don't what the line is, but I certainly think we can't be favored the way they play at home. The onus is on us to put our foot down and play our best in all three phases."
The Vikings' struggles against the run have surprised many, including those within the Vikings locker room. They know they have a reputation, much like a boxer with a huge left hook that gets opponents to pay a lot of attention to it. Suddenly, the Vikings appear vulnerable to the run and it isn't sitting well with the players.
"What bothers me is that our calling card on defense is that we stop the run," defensive end Brian Robison said. "That's what has been the trademark of Vikings football for the last few years – we run the ball well on offense and we stop the run on defense. The bottom line is that we haven't done that the two or three weeks and we need to get that back. We've put ourselves in a good spot early on by getting some wins, but we can't let this be what brings us back down. We stop the run. That's what we do and we have to get back to that."
One 100-yard rusher? You can write that off to being a fluke. Two straight? Not so easy to explain away. Three in row? Now you're starting to talk about a trend. The best part for the Vikings is that there is still a half of a season to go and the Vikings can cure the problems that have arisen over the last couple weeks.
"The best part of going through these things now is that we have a lot of season to improve and prepare properly to fix those things," Greenway said. "It's a combination of things, but we have time to right the ship."
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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