Tough 'D' in Miami

Daunte Culpepper and the Vikings face one of the AFC's best defenses from last year, giving them a good test away from home and on grass in Miami Friday night.

The Vikings close out their 2001 preseason schedule with a team looking to repeat as a division champion, just like the Vikes — the Miami Dolphins. Just as the Vikings have looked to improve on a sub-standard defense, the Dolphins are looking to make things happen on offense that didn't last season.

The key to any success is going to be at quarterback. It seems everyone but coach Dave Wannstedt doesn't believe in former Viking Jay Fiedler, but the coach has stuck with him. Despite trading for Cade McNown last week, Fiedler has beaten out Ray Lucas for the starting job. However, when the Dolphins get inside the 5-yard line, Lucas is expected to come in as an option quarterback, able to throw or run in the red zone. Neither has shown the ability to carry a team on his shoulders. That is why the Dolphins made a move to pick up former Bears QB McNown, and he could also compete for a starting job, although likely not real soon.

The problem of no one standing out isn't true at the running back spot, where Lamar Smith became a Miami ironman, posting the second-highest yardage total in team history last season. Smith is a punishing runner that the Dolphins will lean on heavily, but not against the Vikes. Minnesota will see guys like J.J. Johnson, rookie Travis Minor and Autry Denson, as well as plenty of fullbacks Rob Konrad and Deon Dyer. The plan in Miami remains to lean heavily on the run and use that to set up the passing game.

Unlike last season when the Dolphins were saddled with under-producing aging veterans, a cleaning of the house has taken place at the receiver spot. Oronde Gadsden has become the go-to guy in the offense, but he has some fast young help in starter James McKnight, brought in from Dallas to be reunited with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, former Jet Dedric Ward and rookie Chris Chambers. Combine that with holdover Jeff Ogden and the weakness of last year is a strength.

Tight end is still more for blocking, with former Viking Hunter Goodwin, Jed Weaver and Alonzo Mayes competing for playing time.

The offensive line has jelled into a solid unit of veterans and youth. In the middle are nine-year veteran guard Todd Perry and eight-year center Tim Ruddy. They're joined by tackles Marcus Spriggs and Todd Wade and guard Mark Dixon. Depth isn't a problem for Miami, either, with versatile Heath Irwin capable of filling in at all five positions and giving the Dolphins depth at the line.

While the offense is improving for Miami, it is the defense that has become the hallmark of the franchise and what carried them into the playoffs last season. Despite an injury to Tim Bowens at defensive tackle, the Dolphins have an oppressive defensive front that will be coming after Daunte Culpepper. Defensive ends Jason Taylor and Kenny Mixon are fierce pass rushers and Darryl Gardener has developed into a top-flight tackle. Depth is a little thin with Jermaine Haley and Ernest Grant as tackles and the Big Ten's all-time sack leader Adewale Ogunleye backing up at end.

The free-agent loss of Trace Armstrong took away a lot of sacks from the Miami defense and cut into some of its depth, but this unit is strong and sets the standard for the rest of one of the AFC's best defenses.

The Miami linebackers are led by Zach Thomas, who has become one of the most fierce competitors in the NFL. He has a motor that never quits and is always around the ball. He is joined by Derrick Rodgers and Morlon Greenwood, who has been fighting injuries, on the outside to create an aggressive unit that ballhawks constantly.

While backup middle linebacker Tommy Hendricks will see action against the Vikings, he likely will be stuck on the bench once the season starts because Thomas never leaves the field. The outside linebackers are a different story, however. Both Twan Russell and Scott Galyon started for the Dolphins in games last year and provide the team with experience and leadership that make the middle of the defense solid even if a starter goes down.

As solid as the front line and linebackers are, the strength of the defense may well be the secondary. Sam Madison and Patrick Surtain are both Pro Bowl corners and will provide Randy Moss and Cris Carter with the matchup of the game — albeit a brief one because of the meeting being in the final preseason game.

At safety, Brock Marion and Brian Walker are also solid and, with both Madison and Surtain capable of single-covering receivers, they serve as roaming turnover-makers. While the Vikings are more likely to see players like rookie Jamar Fletcher, Terry Cousin and Ben Kelly at the corners, and safeties Trent Gamble and Arturo Freeman, the drop-off from the starters isn't appreciable when the backups come in the game.

The matchup between the Vikings and Miami will be tempered a bit, as both coaches will likely not risk injury to their star players just a week before the games start for real. Still, this should be an ideal final test for both teams as Miami attempts to get back to the playoffs on defense and the Vikings look to exploit that defense with one of the best offenses in the NFL — a battle of strength vs. strength. VU

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