Less than seven months after finishing with one of the five worst defenses in the NFL (according to yardage), Ted Cottrell has lofty expectations for this year's unit.
"We're shooting for being the No. 1 defense, and I think that's a realistic goal for us," Cottrell told Viking Update at the conclusion of developmental camps last month. "We're going to try and hold our opponents to three touchdowns or less – less than three scores. Our goal has always been 17 points. Until we reach that, we haven't played a good game defensively. We feel if you can keep the scoring down to 17 points or less you've got a good chance to win the game."
That would equate to at least one fewer touchdown per game than the Vikings' average allowance last year. During the 2004 regular season, the team gave up an average 24.68 points.
But Cottrell has reason for optimism – the new players he acquired via free agency.
"I was very thankful that we were able to generate the funds and do what we could to land these guys," he said. "Our pro personnel guys had already scouted them, and we looked at a lot of them on tape. From me coaching them, I was kind of familiar with them, but still you have to go back and look at the tape to make sure that the guy still has that level of play that you were familiar with before. You wouldn't want to take someone you had a few years ago and say, ‘I had him, but he could have digressed in his play, in his abilities.'"
The Vikings added at least five new starters on defense with nose tackle Pat Williams, linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris, and defensive backs Fred Smoot and Darren Sharper. Rookie defensive end Erasmus James, a first-round draft pick, also has a shot at the starting spot at right end, and safety Willie Offord would likely occupy Corey Chavous' starting spot if the veteran doesn't show up for the start of training camp.
And with all the changes on defense, there is one very obvious concern for fans – and especially Cottrell.
"The most concern I have is just the guys executing and getting our chemistry. … All this is good and they're working well without the pads on, but when we put the pads on we need to still keep that same type of intensity and our execution, and everything (needs to be) flowing well and they're not making any mistakes and they're blending when they put the pads on," Cottrell said.
That will be especially true in the defense's front seven, where the blocking and tackling of fully padded players in training camp can't be replicated in spring camps in shorts and helmets.
The Vikings' 14 organized workouts between the draft and the end of June did serve a big purpose, however. Cottrell was able to implement a large chunk of his defense into the players' habits.
"Guys picked up the scheme well. Right now, I feel pretty good, but I'll feel a lot better when we get into camp and see where we are then, with the real hitting," he said. "Linemen and linebackers, those guys thrive on hitting, so you've got to give those guys an opportunity to do that. And then there's the fatigue factor with the heat and all. You've got to see if they can maintain their focus, no mental errors and still keep that keen execution going."
Cottrell said he'll add a few more things to the defense when camp begins, but "I'd say 85 to 90 percent of our defense is in already." Last year at this time he estimated that maybe 50 percent of the defense was implemented.
Having a second year under Cottrell, dealing with the same schemes, the same calls and the same responsibilities has helped speed the implementation process. "The familiarity, you can't replace that," Cottrell said.
And despite the newly acquired veterans not having played for the Vikings, the coordinator is quite confident in their abilities.
"None of them have to prove themselves because we brought some veterans in here who are good players and good leaders," he said. "They don't have to prove themselves because they proved themselves earlier. That's why we signed them."
Cottrell's Defensive Camp Goals
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