Analysis: Flaws Are Fundamental

At under tackle, Chris Hovan could really benefit from lining up next to a big run stuffer, something major the Vikings have been lacking since Jerry Ball's heyday.

The Vikings are having a terrible season on defense this year. What else is new? The defense has ranked near the bottom of the league for the last three seasons, making it somewhat remarkable that the team has done as well as it has in that time. Barring a miracle turnaround, this will be only the second time the Vikes have missed the playoffs under Denny Green and will end the league's longest active streak of postseason appearances at five.

While the salary cap is indeed the major culprit in the Vikings' demise, there is a familiar problem with the defense: too small on the front four. If you are a fan old enough to remember the Vikings' Super Bowl appearances, this problem is as stale as listening to Hank Stram gloat on the sidelines during Super Bowl four.

The Vikings have a proud tradition of great pass-rushing linemen, from the Alan Page and Carl Eller era, to more recent stars like Chris Doleman and John Randle. What they lack is a tradition of great run-stuffing linemen along the lines of Jerry Ball. This has produced mixed results over the years, as the Vikings have always had trouble with power football teams, especially in the playoffs. Remember Dallas running over the Vikes in '96? Emmit Smith was barely being touched until he got 5 yards downfield.

This year's team looks the same against any decent team on natural grass; an average offensive line simply overpowers them. The Vikings are built for artificial turf in an era where most teams have gone back to natural grass.

There is a key position that the Vikings employ, the under tackle. This is the position currently occupied by Chris Hovan, following in the footsteps of John Randle and Keith Millard. This is an active, attacking part in the middle of the line, always penetrating, moving forward, and trying to disrupt the offense by being in the backfield. This works well if when the player in this position is extremely quick and creates pressure. This player needs to play next to an anchor tackle, or nose tackle, which the Vikings have typically lacked in recent years, save for the Jerry Ball years (It's no accident that the Vikings were a good short-yardage defensive team when Ball was playing). Without an anchor tackle holding the middle, there are too many holes for running backs to go through, and too much space where the opposing quarterbacks can step forward if any pressure comes from the outside. The Vikings lack the proper foundation to play the scheme they are currently using.

Long story short, the Vikings have had some spectacular success over the years with a fast, pass-rushing front four. Unfortunately, they need better balance on the D-line to stop the power teams they usually meet at some point in any playoff year. Here's hoping that they will go for a more balanced approach in the future, because the current front four can't stop the run, and the lack of size is not helping them get to quarterbacks, either.

I have to give the Vikes and coach Green credit for trying to solve the D-line problems through the draft in recent years, but most of the players they picked have been busts.

On offense, the loss of four Pro Bowl players on the offensive line, and the retirement of Robert Smith have made the running game ineffective. All this team can really do now is pass the ball, but they can't do it all that effectively because the threat of the run is not there, so all teams have to do is play the pass. One way to see how the lack of a running game has affected the Vikes is to look at the current NFC quarterback ratings. Jeff Garcia of the rejuvenated 49ers is leading the conference in passing. Daunte Culpepper is well down the list, but a curious thing comes up: the amount of attempts, completions and yardage is almost identical for these two. The difference is that Garcia's TD-INT ratio is 17-7, while Culpepper's is 10-9. This shows what a strong running game does for a quarterback, as the Niners are averaging about 45 yards more per game rushing than the Vikings.

Clearly, this team is built from the top down. The problem is that the foundation of the team, the offensive and defensive lines, are simply not strong enough to hold up enough for the star players on the team to have much of an impact. For all the flashiness of Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Culpepper, this team is going nowhere until it shores up both lines. Looking forward, the Vikes might be better off in the long run if they don't turn it around this year to make a playoff run; they simply can't match up against the other top NFC teams this year. Better to try to rebuild the defense with good draft picks earlier in the draft than another blowout loss on the road.

Going back to the 49ers for a minute, maybe the Vikes can take a page out of their book and examine how the Niners managed the draft the last two years to completely rebuild their depleted defense. Bill Walsh traded up to get key guys he wanted, and traded down to get extra picks otherwise. The Vikes need to get creative to finally solve this defensive puzzle.

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