New Look Starts With Defense

The Vikings will have a number of new starters on offense, but defense is where they really made hay in the offseason. That defensive unit wasn't at its best in the preseason, but those players expect a more aggressive approach starting Sunday.

After an offseason that included the trade of Pro Bowl receiver Randy Moss and the acquisition of five new starters on defense, the Vikings officially will unveil their new look Sunday as they open the regular season against Tampa Bay at the Metrodome.

How the defense performs will be among the major points of interest in Minnesota. A unit that ranked 28th last season, including 29th against the pass, and has been a liability for several seasons is expected to be much improved.

Newcomers include nose tackle Pat Williams (from Buffalo), free safety Darren Sharper (Green Bay) and cornerback Fred Smoot (Washington) - all free-agent pickups - and linebackers Napoleon Harris (Oakland) and Sam Cowart (New York Jets), who were obtained via trades.

The first-team defense gave up opening-drive touchdowns to San Diego and Seattle in the final two preseason games but the fact the Vikings spent the four practice games playing a vanilla defense was blamed by many for those quick scores. Smoot also saw action in only one game - he played 1 1/2 quarters in the third exhibition against San Diego - after bruising his knee early in training camp.

Smoot, who showed some rust when he returned to practice Monday by dropping two potential interceptions, is expected to be fine Sunday and there will be nothing bland about the defense coordinator Ted Cottrell puts on the field. Because of the improved personnel, the Vikings should be able to do much more scheme-wise than they could a year ago.

"(There are) definitely packages that we didn't even use last year," cornerback Antoine Winfield said. "We have a lot more talent, a lot more veterans out here that know what their jobs are and what area they are supposed to be in. It will be totally different. We're going to blitz a lot more, play a lot more man-to-man coverage, we're going to do a lot of things."

The one thing that will be interesting to watch, at least from a coaching standpoint, is how things work between Cottrell and coverage coordinator Chuck Knox Jr. Knox, who is the secondary coach, will be in charge of the coverages, an area in which the Vikings struggled mightily in 2004.

"We work together like we always have done," Cottrell said. "That adjustment has been no problem. We've had to make no transition at all with that."

Cowart might be the most important on-field addition to the defense, at least in the early going. The eight-year veteran takes over at middle linebacker and will be expected to provide the type of leadership and savvy that was lacking in 2004, when E.J. Henderson saw most of the time at that spot. Henderson struggled in that role but remains in the starting lineup, having been moved to the weak side.

Williams (6-3, 317 pounds) also should provide a force in stopping the run, playing alongside Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kevin Williams. Those two will be expected to make it difficult for Tampa Bay top pick Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Michael Pittman to have much success

running the ball.

Even without Moss, the Vikings offense can't be overlooked as long as quarterback and MVP candidate Daunte Culpepper is running the show. Sunday will be the first test to see whether coach Mike Tice and new Offensive coordinator Steve Loney stick to their commitment to feature both the run and the pass.

Running backs Michael Bennett (neck) and Mewelde Moore (sprained

ankle) both battled injuries in the preseason but are expected to play, with Bennett getting the start. Conditioning could be an issue, meaning it would not be a surprise to see Bennett, Moore and Moe Williams get carries.

Tice addressed the conditioning issue of his running backs, saying, "The closest one would be Ciatrick (Fason) I think. I can't imagine anything right now. I'm a fantasy football player's nightmare. Then I could be the New York Nightmare instead of the Nigerian Nightmare."

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