Advantage: Defense … For Now

Coaches and players are convinced that the moves the Vikings made this offseason have given them an improved defense, one that operated better than the offense during much of the spring. Still, defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is guarded in his praise.

Coaches have praised the Vikings' refurbished defense after every mini-camp practice and developmental workout this offseason.

"We're much more consistent, not making as many mental mistakes, and we're making more plays, too," coach Mike Tice said. "We've never had a defense that has been ahead of our offense like this."

A cynic would argue that's because the defense no longer has to chase Randy Moss in practice. The Vikings, however, claim it has more to do with a fast-paced offseason dedicated to rebuilding the 28th-ranked defense.

Five new starters were added via free agency and trades. Another new starter could emerge from the draft if first-round pick Erasmus James wins the right end position.

A traditional weak spot for years, the defense now ranks as one of the key reasons the Vikings have become the trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl. Most experts pick them to at least win their first NFC North title.

"I think we match the offense right now," said cornerback Fred Smoot, one of the new starters. "The season will tell which side is better, but right now I think we got what you would call a total team."

Smoot will team with 2004 free-agent pickup Antoine Winfield to give the Vikings one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. Also new to the secondary is free safety Darren Sharper, who was signed two days after rival Green Bay released him because of salary cap reasons.

"Some people would argue that our secondary is the strength of our defense," Tice said. "But our front line is going to be pretty special."

The Vikings added a virtual immovable object to the middle of their front line when they lured massive nose tackle Pat Williams from Buffalo in free agency. Williams, a veteran of Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's defenses, should make All-Pro tackle Kevin Williams even better.

Linebacker continues to be a weak spot, but new starters Napoleon Harris and Sam Cowart might be an upgrade. Harris was part of the Moss trade with Oakland, while Cowart was acquired from the Jets for a seventh round draft pick.

Harris will start on the strong side. A former first round draft pick, he struggled last season because of a knee injury.

Cowart takes over for youngster E.J. Henderson in the middle. Cowart has played under Cottrell before and brings a veteran presence to the defense. But he also is injury prone.

Training camp will be an especially important time for the defense.

"Just because you have better players doesn't mean you're going to have a better defense," Cottrell said. "You have to come together and play as a unit in order to be a better defense."


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