Opinions That Count on D-Tackles

Statistically speaking, in 2003 Chris Hovan had a disappointing season and Kevin Williams had a strong rookie campaign. See what defensive line coach Brian Baker and defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell expect from their defensive tackles this year and what they can improve on from last season.

Last year, Chris Hovan was thought to be closing in on a Pro Bowl season. It turned out rookie defensive lineman Kevin Williams was closer to earning that honor when it came to statistical production.

Hovan had 38 tackles and two sacks in 2003. Williams had 56 tackles and 10.5 sacks after starting 12 games at left end and the final four games as Hovan's tangential tackle.

This year, Hovan and Williams have spent more than a dozen spring practices next to each other on the interior of the defensive line, but Hovan cautioned that fans shouldn't count on two players to bolster the whole defense.

"I think it's the whole defense, I don't just think it's one man," he said. "I think it's Ted Cottrell, bringing these young guys in. Two guys don't make a defense, I'll tell you that right now. We've got to come to training camp and jell. That's how you become great as a defense and individually."

Hovan put a fair amount of pressure on himself last year, maybe too much. He sounds like he felt he had to carry more than his share, which might have backfired.

"There is only so much I can do to free guys up, and (2003) was the first time the numbers weren't there. I'm not going to say anything and I'm not going to predict anything. I'm in the best shape I've ever been in, so I'll let my actions speak for themselves," he said.

The thinking is that Hovan and Williams should combine for a formidable pass-rushing duo inside, but defensive line coach Brian Baker said end Lance Johnstone is his best pure pass rusher. He had a half sack less than Williams last year.

"(Williams) was the benefactor of Lance some of the time," Baker said. "(Johnstone) would push the quarterback up to him. As a matter of fact, I think Kevin has the ability to be one of the better pass rushers. One of the things he and I are working on is to not be such a catch-the-trash kind of guy — go create some of your stuff. He is a big old powerful guy."

Williams is hardly old at 23, but a rookie year of experience is invaluable to a guy going from a college schedule to a pro schedule, Baker said.

"Kevin played 20 games last year (including preseason) — two college seasons — so he's smarter right now," the position coach said. "He's starting to understand why he can do things he can do, why we're saying what we're saying. Is he as sharp as some of the other veterans in there? Not quite, but he's a million miles ahead of where he was last year."

Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell thinks Williams has all the talent he needs.

"Kevin Williams can be as good as he wants," Cottrell said.

Despite Hovan being the more veteran player, Cottrell said he needs to be keep his options open for what move he will use before the ball is snapped. Cottrell thinks Hovan didn't adjust his move according to how he was being blocked last year.

Baker says Hovan got enough pressure on the quarterback but needs to complete the play for a sack.

"I think Chris is a guy who can get great pressure on the quarterback, but we're still working on the way he finishes, and I think that will be the difference in his sack total," Baker said. "Chris pressured the quarterback well last year. He didn't get many sacks. But he's so explosive, he was pushing the pocket pretty decently last year."

Some think Hovan might have been too aggressive last year, but Baker said he was playing his style. "I don't think he used all his skills last year, but I think his aggressive temperament is a tool that is an asset. I don't want him to dial it back. I want him to play smarter at times and I think that will happen with another year of experience. I think he's already benefiting from last year's experience because he already knows what I'm talking about when I talk. My very first year here coaching him, when I was talking to him he kind of gave me that look. But now it's fun talking to him because of his experience since the last time I coached him.

"He's a leverage guy, so I think he can play pad-on-pad and I think he can use his hands a little more to get that separation. The difference between pressure and a sack sometimes is just how quick you disengage from the blocker. … I think that's where Chris lost a lot of opportunities last year is that he didn't disengage from blockers to get to the quarterback as quickly as I think he's capable of doing."

With the addition of rookies Kenechi Udeze at defensive end and Darrion Scott rotating between end and tackle, and the veteran starters of Kenny Mixon, Kevin Williams, Chris Hovan and Lance Johnstone returning, the Vikings should have a deep rotation along the defensive line. However, a continuous rotation may not be what Cottrell is looking for.

"We don't want to have to take guys out. We want them all to be every-down players," Cottrell said. "It helps them set up guys and get a feel for the game and how it's going. It's like a boxer. The first few plays they're feeling each other out a little bit, then they go at it."

This year, the Vikings are hoping that Hovan and Williams will be able to deliver that knockout blow to opposing teams in January and February instead of the Vikings getting knocked from the playoffs in December. The duo at defensive tackle should be among the headline fighters leading that charge.

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