The Vikings have several things going in their favor. Aside from being in first place in the NFC North, they are rested from a week off, they are at home and they will face the Denver Broncos. Why is Denver a good thing? Nobody likes to play games at Mile High Stadium, so getting Denver in the Metrodome is a huge bonus. It also helps that Denver will is coming off games with Kansas City and Pittsburgh and will be missing its starting quarterback and starting middle linebacker. The Broncos are banged up, which is about all that can slow this team down this year.
The Broncos were roundly criticized in the offseason for giving a huge contract to QB Jake Plummer, who had struggled in Arizona for his entire career. But, surrounded by the talent the Broncos have on offense, Plummer has blossomed. With his deep passing and scrambling ability, he is much more dangerous than his predecessor Brian Griese and doesn't have to worry about veteran backup Steve Beuerlein looming over his shoulder when he is healthy. But a shoulder and foot will keep Plummer out of today's game at the Metrodome. That means the Vikings don't have to worry about the scrambling ability from the quarterback position, but they still need to worry about a veteran quarterback behind one of the best offensive lines in the game.
The running game for Denver has been terrific. Even before Terrell Davis, the Broncos routinely had journeyman running backs top 1,000 yards. When Davis went down, Olandis Gary stepped in. When he got hurt, Mike Anderson went over 1,000 yards. But, when the team drafted Clinton Portis, a whole new era began for Denver running backs. A second-round pick in 2002, Portis has the speed to break a run the distance at any time and has added 15 pounds of muscle to pound the rock in from the 1-yard line. He and Anderson are the backbone of the offense, and keeping Portis contained will be the top priority of the Vikings' defensive game plan.
The Broncos have several other players that can kill a defense in the passing game as well. At wide receiver, Rod Smith remains one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but he may not be the best deep threat on the team. Second-year WR Ashley Lelie has taken over that assignment. The Broncos coaches love Lelie's speed and ability to get separation. So much so that former All-Pro Ed McCaffrey is now resigned to No. 3 duties in most offensive sets. As if those three don't pose enough problems, veteran Shannon Sharpe is also available to make big plays. The Vikings secondary has been tested, but this will be the stiffest test to date in 2003 to keep all these guys in check.
One of the longstanding Bronco traditions has been effective offensive line play. Never the biggest linemen, these guys have blocked for more 1,000-yard rushers than any team in the NFL since 1990, and while the names change the effectiveness doesn't. Tackles Ephraim Salaam and Matt Lepsis are in their sixth and seventh seasons, respectively, while guard Dan Niel is a seven-year vet and center Tom Nalen is in his 10th season. The only youngster in the group is third-year guard Ben Hamilton, a University of Minnesota product familiar to many football fans. The Broncos always seem to have replacement parts ready on the line and once again look rock steady.
Many of the names on the Broncos defense aren't household names yet but may soon be if Denver continues to win at their September pace. On the defensive front, the Broncos are stronger vs. the run than attacking the QB. Defensive end Trevor Pryce is one of the better clogging ends in the AFC, and the combination of Bertrand Berry and Reggie Heyward are more than serviceable on the other side. In the middle, the Broncos spent a lot of money on Daryl Gardner to line up next to Darius Holland, and the two have been a solid mix of run stuffing and collapsing the pocket on passing downs. There isn't a lot of depth here, but the starting unit is solid and will give the Vikings' O-line all it can handle.
The linebacker corps has become a strength of this defense and just keeps getting better. MLB Al Wilson made the Pro Bowl last year, and speedy outside backers Ian Gold and John Mobley aren't far behind. Gold was just lost for the season due to injury, so it will be interesting to see if this unit continues its strong play or drops off in Gold's absence. Denver coaches are very high on second-round draft pick Terry Pierce, who, like the Vikings' E.J. Henderson, wasn't a slotted draft spot of need, but a talent too good to pass up. This group will hound the Vikings running attack all game long.
The secondary is probably the weakness of the defense and the area the Vikings will most likely try to attack and exploit. At the corners, Deltha O'Neal has improved but is still extremely inconsistent from game to game and play to play. At the other corner, second-year man Lenny Walls has won a starting spot but still gets spelled by fellow second-year player Kelly Herndon and, when healthy, Willie Middlebrooks. What these corners have in common is athletic ability. What they don't have is consistency and experience, which could be exploited. At the safeties, Kenoy Kennedy is the greybeard of the group in his fourth year, with second-year pro Sam Brandon at the free safety. This young group has heavy hitters but can be exploited by savvy quarterbacks and schemes.
The Broncos, like the Vikings, didn't earn their perfect September record by luck or fluke or scheduling. Both teams have won on the road and defended their home turf. It won't be easy, but the Vikings hope to end Denver's road success and keep rolling to the playoffs with another win over a quality opponent.
Clinton Portis vs. Vikings Linebackers — For all of his speed and elusiveness, Denver running back Clinton Portis gets as many yards running up the middle as he does to the outside. But it is his ability to break off long runs that makes him a dangerous game-breaker and makes the role of Vikings linebackers Greg Biekert, Chris Claiborne and Henri Crockett the matchup to watch in this game.
As a rookie last year, Portis didn't become the full-time starter for the Broncos until the fifth game of the season. From that point on, he rushed for more than 100 yards seven times in 12 games, scored at least one touchdown in nine games and did one or the other in 11 of those 12 games. Not since the heyday of Terrell Davis have the Broncos had such a dominant presence and, when that was happening, Denver happened to be the last team in the NFL to win back-to-back Super Bowl titles.
Portis is the type of player that forces defenses to sneak up safeties, which is always a dangerous tactic for a high-powered offense like the Broncos. Before injuring his chest in the third game of the season, Portis was getting the ball 20 to 25 times a game. When Portis carried the ball 20 or more times in 2002, the Broncos were 5-2. In games he didn't, they were 4-5. That fact wasn't lost on coach Mike Shanahan. Nor was it lost that Denver was 6-2 in games he rushed for more than 100 yards.
He is the type of back that has caused problems for the Vikings in the past. His speed is going to force the blitzing Vikings linebackers to concern themselves more with positional assignments than being aggressive going after Steve Beuerlein. Portis will force the Vikings to alter their regular defense.
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