Newcomers Excited, But Patient

It may be too early to completely judge this defense, but the few additions the Vikings made seem to be panning out well.

Purple fans, before we decide that the Vikings have fully solved their need for a full-time starter at nose tackle in the person of rookie Shawn Worthen, let's consider what Worthen himself says he has encountered midway through the preseason schedule.

"In college you face some strong guards and some quick guards and some other aggressive big guys, but here they're all bigger, faster and stronger in comparison to college, and you're not going to just beat ‘em off the bat," Worthen told VU. "When you beat somebody here, you have to beat 'em twice because they're not going to stop blocking you. They're just not going to allow you to beat them; that's their mental focus and you've got to get past that."

Worthen points out that it isn't merely a physical situation. "One of the biggest problems for a rookie is trying to learn on the run, and being good at what you learn. (The coaches) throw so many things at you in so short a period of time. There's not much margin for error as far as taking it to the (practice) field and then into the game. It's a very short period between installation and production. That's been the biggest adjustment up here."

Worthen performed so well after being thrown into the fire as a rookie that head coach Dennis Green tabbed him one of several rookies who may be starting when the regular season begins.

After some early success in the Vikings' first two exhibition games, Worthen confessed that he was trying to take on too much responsibility. "They're trying to get me to narrow my focus as far as my position and not think so much outside my box," he said. "They want me to concentrate more on my perimeter and the three people I have to deal with — the center and the two guards — and not worry too much about the other things that are going on.

"Once I get that down, we'll start working on other things, like the different blocking schemes I'll be facing and stuff like that. For now, they just want me to concentrate on what's happening to me directly. There aren't many things that can happen to me as a nose tackle, but the few things that do happen can be critical."

Worthen is one of several newcomers who promises to improve the team's defensive line production. Another is six-year veteran Lance Johnstone. Johnstone, a second-round draft choice by Oakland in 1996, led the Raiders in sacks in 1998 (11) and 1999 (10). In 2000, he started the first nine games before a groin injury limited his playing time. He signed a free-agent contract with the Vikings and is expected to provide a needed speed rush from the right end position.

Johnstone predicts that the Vikings defense will be a much more effective unit this season, partly because of the improved chemistry among the front four.

"I think we're coming together a lot quicker than I thought we would," Johnstone said. "Part of it is that we get along well personality-wise. Not just on the field, but all the way around, and that has helped us grow a little faster than we probably expected to."

Including the big rookie in the middle of the line? "Oh, yeah. He's so strong. He has the body for it (6 feet, 316-pounds)," Johnstone said. "He was born to be a nose tackle. His strength is a gift because he's being double-teamed on every play. Once he gets his technique down, I think he's going to be a real good player."

Action defense
For better or for worse, the Vikings defense will have a different look this season, partly the result of the philosophy of defensive backs/assistant head coach Willie Shaw.

Shaw, who previously coached the Vikings secondary in 1992-93, returns this year to install what he describes as "an action defense."

"We don't want to play reaction defense and action offense," Shaw said. "Every offense I know wants it that way. They want to set the tone and be the aggressors. They want to see the defense react so they can set you up.

"Our key is to not worry about what they're going to do. We want them to worry about what we're going to do. We want to make it a reaction offense to our action defense — turn the tables on them, so to speak."

Shaw acknowledges that the interruption in the Vikings' training camp due to the death of tackle Korey Stringer has put added pressure on the players and the coaches to complete preparations before opening day. In that regard, he says the Indianapolis Colts were the perfect opponent to face at this stage in the preseason.

"You want to face an offense like the Colts have," he said. "They have a balanced run and pass, good play-action, a quarterback like Peyton Manning, who throws a tight ball down the field. They also have two good wide receivers and a good back, who runs good and catches the ball well out of the backfield. If you're going to get a third game in the preseason, that's the one you want.

"Then you take a litmus test after that." VU

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