Two Plays, Big Things?

Two plays — one on offense and one on defense — out of 125 stick out from the Vikings' season-opening win at Dallas, and they could signify big things to come.

Clichés cover a football field like the rubber granules nestled into the Metrodome's new FieldTurf: "The NFL is a game of inches" and "one or two plays can be the difference in a game."

If those are true, we offer you two plays from the Vikings' 35-17 win over Dallas that could point to big things to come.

The offensive play of the game came in the second quarter. The Vikings were lucky to be trailing only 3-0 after Dallas had driven inside the Minnesota 10-yard line twice in the first quarter, including a 20-play drive that ended with a bad snap that negated what would have been a field goal attempt.

Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper stayed patient while waiting on the sideline. "It's all in football," he said of the offense waiting much of the first quarter. "We have to stay focused. We have to stay in tune and in the game mentally, and when we get back on the field we have to make sure we're not cold and stiff. We have to stay loose."

After Dallas was successful on its first field goal attempt, the Vikings picked up one first down and were forced to punt before crossing midfield. When the defense finally did weather that 20-play drive of Dallas, the Minnesota offense did come out loose.

On their second possession, the Vikings were facing third-and-1 on the 37-yard line. Dallas stacked the line of scrimmage. Forget about eight men in the box, the Cowboys were coming on an all-out blitz and looking to stuff a quarterback sneak or a dive by running back Onterrio Smith.

Culpepper saw the blitz coming and saw the middle of the field would be open.

"I saw the zero blitz and I audibled to it," Culpepper said. "We were able to pick it up on the play. That was the key. The offensive linemen picked it up up front and, boom, I was able to make the play."

Culpepper moved from under center to the shotgun to give him more time in the face of the blitz and called his audible.

Then he waited while the Dallas defenders charged toward him. He waited until Smith met and passed the rush-hour traffic heading toward Culpepper and, as the QB put it — "boom" — Smith became wide open.

Culpepper floated a pass about 7 yards past the line of scrimmage and all Smith had to do was catch it and run — and pick up one final downfield block from a hard-charging Randy Moss to score the touchdown.

"That's a play that we've been working on," Smith said, "and we knew they were going to come with that blitz. We didn't know when they were going to come with it. They came with it fairly early into the ballgame, and Pep did a great job of executing. Our offensive line held their blocks in there and Pep put it up there. All I had to do was run under and catch it and take it to the house."

Truth be told, the Vikings have been working on that play since minicamp. It was just a matter of timing — Culpepper's timing to call it in the right circumstance.

That 63-yard touchdown was huge on many levels.

  • It showed Culpepper knows offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's offense, and it shows the quarterback's progress in learning to read defenses and make the right call at the right time.

  • It shows that the offense can remain patient while the defense is struggling during an extended drive.

  • It showed the Vikings' depth and talent at running back, depth they will need until at least midseason — maybe the whole season.

    The defensive play of the game had to wait until the fourth quarter.

    The Vikings were leading 28-17, and Cowboys were making their last-ditch efforts to get back into the ballgame. It was a sight Vikings fans have seen before. Their offense finds a rhythm, builds a lead and then the defense has to hold on for dear life. Opposing quarterbacks making their first start have peeled through the Vikings defense in such situations before, and this time veteran Vinny Testaverde was trying to do the damage with receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Antonio Bryant.

    (Before we go any further with this one-play tale, it should be pointed out that Testaverde ended the game with 355 yard passing, and the Johnson-Bryant-Glenn trio combined for 307 yards receiving.)

    Still, this was a time that the Vikings defense needed a stop, with Dallas taking possession of the ball at 14:08 in the fourth quarter. With 9:47 left in the game and trailing by 11 points, the Cowboys had driven inside the red zone and just converted a third down with a 21-yard completion to Johnson.

    Dallas had a fresh set of downs and a Vikings defense that wasn't nearly as fresh. Enter Minnesota's highest paid outside free agent in franchise history — cornerback Antoine Winfield.

    Winfield, at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, was touted all offseason as being a top-rated tackler and an all-around cornerback, as adept at offering run support as he is in sticking with top receivers in coverage.

    The Cowboys handed off to fullback Richie Anderson (6-2, 215) and there was Winfield coming up to offer his patented run support. When he and safety Brian Russell converged on Anderson for no gain, Winfield was credited with popping the ball loose and recovering that same fumble.

    Four plays and 81 yards later, the Vikings had their fifth touchdown pass of the game, a 43-yarder to Kelly Campbell, and a 35-17 win.

    Winfield ended the contest with a game-high nine tackles, one pass defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

    The Vikings may give up yards again on defense this season, but they won't give up with Winfield in the game, just like the offense won't give up no matter how slow the start.

    After 125 plays in the season opener, two of them stand out as offering hope for big things in 2004.

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