The names have changed. So, in fact, has the Minnesota Vikings' record. But after nine games, the Vikings defense is still ranked near the bottom of the NFL in several categories.
Last year, the Vikings defense dwelled near the bottom of the league in several categories as well. Naturally, wholesale changes were made.
The Vikings used their No. 1 draft pick on defensive lineman Kevin Williams, moved Kenny Mixon from left end to right end and made Lance Johnstone more of a pass-rushing specialist. They used their second-round pick on linebacker E.J. Henderson, whose playing time continues to increase because of the speed he adds when he is on the field.
The Vikings signed free agent Chris Claiborne and plugged him in at weakside linebacker, thus relocating Henri Crockett to the strong side.
They signed veteran free agents Ken Irvin and Denard Walker to shore up the secondary. Because Irvin hurt his toe in training camp, Walker started at right cornerback. Irvin has started the last two games at right corner while Walker has been the nickel-back. Brian Russell won the starting free safety job and has been there since.
For the first six games it appeared the 6-0 Vikings had made all the right moves. But a mid-season swoon has caused concerns that one game will not fix. Still, the Vikings don't think they're that far off.
"We've got to start making some plays," said defensive coordinator George O'Leary, who considered calling plays from the coaches booth for the first time this season in Oakland. "It's as pure and simple as that."
Even though statistics point to the Vikings defense as one of the worst in the league, some players disagree.
"I believe whole-heartily that this year's defense is better than last year's defense," Russell said. "The fact of the matter is we haven't played well for a few games. We don't hide that fact. We're not running away from it. We see some things we need to fix.
"But at the same time, you look at turnovers — we're still one of the top teams in the league. We've been getting a lot of interceptions."
Unfortunately for the Vikings, the majority came in the first six games.
The Vikings had 16 interceptions during their 6-0 start and just two in the three games they have lost consecutively to the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers.
Turnovers alone make the 2003 defense better, cornerback Eric Kelly said.
"We're a better defense because we have more picks," he said. "If we keep doing that we'll show that we're a better defense."
Last year by this time, the Vikings were scratching and surviving to find a defensive lineup that worked. The Vikings started the same defensive lineup in consecutive weeks only three times last year.
This year, Vikings coaches believe they have the right pieces in place.
It's just a matter of execution.
"You need to be consistent and make the plays," Russell said. "But we've been playing sloppy and being inconsistent and that doesn't win football games."
But because of the quick start the Vikings insist they are still playing with confidence.
"We know we're a good football team," Russell said. "That's why we're staying together. The big reason the confidence level around here is so high is because the team as a whole is staying together."
Another reason the defense has been mired in a mid-season slump is because players might be pressing. The swoon snowballed from one game against the Giants to three in a row.
That is the result, linebacker Greg Biekert said, of players trying to carry more than their load. A refreshing switch from, say, Oakland, where the finger pointing is well underway.
"We have got some points where maybe guys are trying to overcompensate just a little bit here and there," said Biekert, who faced his former team last Sunday. "What is happening is you are cheating, you try to cheat the defense for a certain play and you cheat yourself out of another one.
"We just have to get back to, ‘Hey, if it is my play to make I have to make it. If it is not my play then I need to get to where I am supposed to be and let whoever's play it is make it.' "
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