Youngsters Emerge Behind Blocking

Michael Bennett and Todd Bouman have both progressed strongly in the last few weeks, partly because of their own improvements and partly because the offensive line is coming together.

Vikings rookie running back Michael Bennett had just emerged as a bonifide breakaway threat in the 42-14 victory over Tennessee. His numbers were his best for a single game: 16 carries, 113 yards and two touchdowns, an average of 7.1 yards per carry.

Afterwards, Bennett insisted on giving a large share of the credit to the blocking by the offensive line.

Vikings coach Denny Green had the same take on what was the team's second-best single-game rushing performance of the season (the 35-13 win over Green Bay on Oct. 21 was the best. "A running back can only go as far as the line will take him," Green said. "I think that we've been so focused on getting our guys in the right situation we haven't been able to get the running game timing down. We've also been a team that relies a great deal on the pass.

"I think when you play a team like Tennessee and you don't give 'em any sacks that means your offensive line played well. It means they played solid; they played together. I think our running game has evolved as those guys worked closer together. It's much easier to pass block with five guys than it is to really coordinate your run blocking."

The unexpected retirement of Robert Smith while he was still at the top of his game left a gaping hole in the Vikings offense. Green gambled on Michael Bennett filling the hole, making Bennett his first draft choice this year, even though Bennett had played little more than what amounted to one full season behind Ron Dayne at the University of Wisconsin.

Green continues to hold to his training camp prediction that Bennett will ultimately become the man to fill Smith's considerable role in the team's basic attack as time goes on. At the present time, however, Green said, "Our ability to spread people out and make plays forcing (opponents) to play certain coverages and then be able to counter them with draws and traps is what we did with Robert Smith. We have not had the luxury to get it done this year, many times (because of) penalties and a lot of different things.

"But I think Bennett will finish the year real strong. He has since coming back from an ankle injury. If he had played in all the games he would be showing real good things. I think he will in the last four games of the season. He's a very good player, strong runner, very good balance and, obviously, very explosive."

The other player who earned his permanent set of spurs against the Titans was backup quarterback Todd Bouman. Bouman became the first Vikings quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in his first start. They followed his two scoring tosses in the fourth quarter the previous Sunday against Pittsburgh when he entered the game in the fourth quarter replacing the injured Daunte Culpepper.

Like Bennett, Bauman also insisted on giving a large share of the credit to the offensive line.

"We've had guys injured on the offensive line on and off throughout the season, and the other guys have stepped up and really played well," said Bouman, who was named the Miller Lite Player of the Week after throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns. "This was the first time that we'd pretty much had the offensive line all healthy at the same time, and everybody did a great job. The way the line was blocking, our running game really helped open things up for the passing game and they did a wonderful job. The three- and four-wides (formations) were opening up big holes and Bennett and (Doug) Chapman and those guys were taking advantage of it."

Tight end Byron Chamberlain told VU that Bouman was successful partly because he took charge of the Vikings' huddle even though it was his first start. "He was cool and confident throughout the game," Chamberlain said. "That's what you want in a quarterback. That's what Daunte has. It's very important to the whole offense."

Chamberlain caught one of Bouman's four touchdown passes against Tennessee. His four catches in the game raised his total number of catches for the season to 42. That's the ninth-best single-season performance by a Vikings' tight end, and the best since Steve Jordan had 56 in 1993.

Chamberlain, who signed a free-agent contract with Minnesota this year after six seasons and two Super Bowl championships as a member of the Denver Broncos, played his first three years of college football at the University of Missouri, then played his final year at Wayne State, where he earned Division II All-America honors.

He studied broadcasting and communications in the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. He appears regularly on local television and says "You have to plan for life after football, and sports broadcasting would be something I'd really like to do."

15 yards for hurting
Vikngs defensive tackle Willie Howard, this year's second-round draft pick from Stanford, will undergo reconstructive surgery on his injured right knee and is looking at nine months of rehabilitation, according to Green.

The injury occurred in the Tennessee game. He said he "heard a pop" and the knee caved in when Titans tackle Brad Hopkins blocked him from behind. Howard also sustained a fractured fibula on the same leg. No penalty was called.

Asked if he thought it was an illegal cut block, he said, "I don't know if it was legal or not legal. I'm a rookie. But to me it was illegal because the damn play hurt real bad."

The Vikings have asked the league office to review the videotape of the play. VU

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