Nickel Not There Yet

Mike Tice's publicly stated No. 1 goal for his new-look Vikings defense coming into Sunday's regular-season opener was to get off the field on third downs. While the overall defense was a major upgrade, the team didn't meet its efficiency mark on third downs, largely due to depth that was exposed in the nickel defense.

Ever since 1998, most shortcomings by the Minnesota Vikings have been laid at the footstep of the defense. If Sunday's regular-season opener against Tampa Bay was any indication, that era appears to be over.

In the Vikings' 24-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs, the defense could hardly be blamed. It was the Minnesota defenders outscoring the offenders – err, the offensive Vikings – 7-6.

"We know the offense is going to do better than they did today," safety Darren Sharper said. "As we continue to get the ball back in their hands, I don't think you'll ever see a game where they don't score as an offense. We're just too talented and have too good of a scheme on offense. (Sunday) hopefully was an aberration."

On offense at least. The Vikings hope their new-look defense – with the addition of nose tackle Pat Williams, linebackers Sam Cowart and Napoleon Harris and defensive backs Fred Smoot and Sharper to the starting ranks – continues to play the way it did Sunday.

The Vikings defense put up Minnesota's only points of the first half on Sharper's 88-yard interception return for a touchdown. He said he was able to make the interception by studying film, recognizing the formation and reading the quarterback's eyes.

It was a stark contrast to a defense didn't see a lot of playing time as a first unit together in the preseason.

"You saw a vanilla group," cornerback Fred Smoot said about the preseason games. "We didn't really run much of the defense, ran a lot of cover-2 and cover-3. Who are you going to beat doing that? So basically you just saw a group out there together trying to form a group. We didn't really run what we're going to run, didn't really show you the Vikings defense's identity. After the first two or three games, you ought to know the identity and know what to expect from this group."

Sunday was a good start for the defense, even if the offense continued to give away the ball.

The defense held Tampa Bay to 12 first downs, four rushing. Smoot and Sharper each had interceptions, and the Vikings often forced the Bucs in third-and-long situations.

But that was part of the problem – if the Vikings defense had a deficiency Sunday, it was their nickel defense, when they had to enter their second-team cornerbacks into the game. It wasn't the base defenders giving up most of the big plays, and they didn't live up to their goals of getting off the field on third down at least 70 percent of the time. Instead, Tampa Bay converted on 47 percent of its third-down opportunities.

Wide receiver Joey Galloway had an especially good time on third downs working against nickel back Brian Williams, who was replaced at times, and dime back Ralph Brown.

Galloway had a reception of 30 yards against Williams in the first quarter to set up the Bucs' first touchdown, and that touchdown came from tight end Alex Smith two plays later. Smith was working against middle linebacker Rod Davis, who was replacing starter Sam Cowart when he suffered a shoulder stinger on the previous play, and Smith worked that advantage to the tune of a 23-yard touchdown.

"They went right at Davis," Vikings coach Mike Tice said. "They would have went right at Cowart too because the call was two-man, so everybody was man underneath with two deep, so it really wouldn't have mattered if you or I were in at linebacker. They called a seam route and we had man-to-man coverage. We knew they liked seam routes down there. If you have man-to-man coverage underneath, they have to make the perfect throw, and (Brian Griese) made a nice throw."

Smith agreed, getting two touchdowns against Vikings linebackers.

"I was one-on-one with the linebackers, so we always like that matchup," Smith said. "Griese threw a great ball and before I knew it I was in the end zone."

On the next drive, Griese went for receiver Michael Clayton, who was in a route with Brown covering. That play resulted in a 41-yard gain when Brown appeared to momentarily lose his balance.

Later in the second quarter, Galloway got loose for a 36-yard gain.

Smoot was almost prophetic last week when he said, "basically, they want to throw it to Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway." The Bucs did, and they took advantage of matchup situations where the Vikings' best players were either out of the game or not on the route Griese was throwing at.

Another prophetic statement from Smoot last week was this:

"I don't know how many people in the NFL think they're where they need to be in Week 1. This is a league where you want to grow, you want to hit your stride in Week 9 when the turnover comes and it's time to make a playoff run. That's when you want to hit your stride. If you peak right now, you won't be going to the playoffs."

The Vikings can only hope that their base defenders continue their strong play and their second-team players can improve. If that happens, this will have the making of a first-rate defense. If it doesn't happen, then smart teams will continue to look for the matchup that pits a receiver against a nickel or dime back, or a tight end against a backup linebacker.

On Sunday, those were about the only plays that were working in the Bucs' favor.



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