Production In A Pinch

The Vikings have suffered more than their fair share of injuries in three short weeks of the 2004 season, but the substitutes have played surprisingly well. Find out what a team source says about the play of the replacements and how the injuries have affected the game plans.

The story remains the same for the Minnesota Vikings. The early portion of the 2004 season has been riddled with injuries and some unexpected high levels of play from some unlikely individuals.

Granted, to be a player in the National Football League, you have to be one of the best. Perhaps the Vikings scouting personnel and coaching staff have a leg up on the competition.

Simply evaluate the increasingly long list of walking wounded in Minnesota, and one would have to wonder how this organization sits atop the NFC North Division with a 2-1 record.

From the season-ending losses of starters like tight end Jim Kleinsasser, right tackle Mike Rosenthal and nickel back Ken Irvin, to the recent hit the team has taken with injuries to starting linebackers E. J. Henderson and Chris Claiborne and tight end Jermaine Wiggins, this Vikings team is molded to deal with adversity.

Rookie Nat Dorsey stepped in and played well against the Bears last week. So well, in fact, the Minnesota coaching staff has penciled him in to start at right tackle ahead of Adam Haayer for the foreseeable future in Rosenthal's absence.

"We told you that Nat Dorsey is a kid that really has some good athletic ability. He has come a long way since coming in here, and we are pleased with how he has stepped up to the challenge," a team source said. "With Haayer having more experience, we thought he may have been the first logical choice to play, but Dorsey elevated his game and we actually provided less help for him throughout the remainder of the game than we did with Haayer.

"There are still some concerns about his [Dorsey's] consistency and immediate play. With a young player, you expect some mental errors. We hope to minimize those errors and give him the support he needs to keep the right side of the line from becoming a problem area."

Relatively an unknown commodity, tight end Richard Owens has quickly become a viable option for the Vikings with the season-ending knee injury suffered by Kleinsasser. Owens, a big, soft-handed receiver has shown the ability to be a productive member in Minnesota's explosive offensive scheme. Surprisingly fluid, Owens' play has the coaching staff feeling much better today than they did a week or so ago.

"When Kleinsasser and then Wiggins went down, we were very concerned we'd have to really cut back the game-plan and max protect with the tight end to the weak side. Surprisingly, we were able to get away from some of that in the Chicago game," the source continued. "With the bye week, we will work on some things that should help us in our protection and blitz packages. It also helps knowing that Owens can step up and contribute like he has. While he isn't Sass [Kleinsasser] or Wiggins, he has been a pleasant surprise and that is a credit to our scouting and personnel guys for getting him in here."

Rookie Dontarrious Thomas, an outside linebacker by trade, became an immediate success when Henderson was injured early in the Chicago game. Early returns show Thomas was overwhelmed at the outside linebacker position during the Vikings' first two games of the season, but his athleticism and quickness were evident last week in a replacement role. Playing with a sense of abandon, Thomas appeared to take the next step up the ladder of progression in this his rookie season.

To be honest, Thomas made some mistakes on Sunday, but his speed and quickness were superior and helped offset his occasional lapses. Showing the ability to maintain his responsibility in the scheme, Thomas was an instant surprise to the coaching staff.

"He played very well, especially considering he really has not been exposed to the position [middle linebacker] much. He is a tremendously gifted athlete and a young man that really knows how to get after the ball," the source adds. "This kid has all the tools — quick, fast, strong and really studies hard. Sunday may have been one of those instances where a young player just played the game, rather than having to think through every play. Especially in a young talented player, when the game becomes reactionary, they really come fast.

I believe we viewed the starting of that process with Thomas."

Injuries hurt every team at some point in the NFL, and for the Vikings the hit has been hard. But, by initial appearances, this Minnesota team may be one that becomes stronger when the chips are down and expectations are questioned.

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