The Vikings entered Sunday's season opener with five new starters on defense, but that didn't stop them from trying other new things. Welcome to the era of a veteran defense in Minnesota.
Coach Mike Tice and his staff enter Sunday's game at Cincinnati
confident that they have found a successful formula on defense.
With five new starters in the lineup — six, if middle turned weakside linebacker E.J. Henderson
is included — the defense was able to avoid many of the embarrassing mistakes that plagued it in recent seasons in Sunday's season-opening 24-13 loss to Tampa Bay.
The defense even accounted for the Vikings' only touchdown, when free safety Darren Sharper
jumped the route on a Brian Griese
pass and returned the interception 88 yards for a first-quarter score. It was the first time in recent memory a Vikings safety has shown that type of on-field instincts.
"It definitely felt good," said Sharper, signed as a free agent after spending eight seasons in Green Bay. "You always want to make a good impression in your first game, especially in a new uniform, a new town.
"Fans here have seen me make plays like that before but it's usually against them. It's good to let them know and let my teammates know that I'm here to really contribute by bringing that big-play ability and also being a leader for this defense."
One wrinkle the Vikings used against the Bucs and surely will develop at Cincinnati is a 3-4 defense that enabled energetic linebacker Keith Newman
to get on the field. Newman created plenty of havoc, including forcing Griese into a second-quarter interception.
Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell indicated there are more looks to the 3-4 alignment than what he showed against the Buccaneers.
"We've got some things we can do out of it," he said. "It's one of those things we had worked on and we had not shown it, obviously, during the preseason games. The thing about it is the players like it. Obviously, we have a few more wrinkles in it. We might cut back, we might add. That's just one of those things we have at our availability to keep an offense guessing."
The one concern for Sunday will be the availability of veteran middle linebacker Sam Cowart
. Cowart suffered a strained left calf late in the Tampa Bay game and if he can't play he probably would be replaced by second-year player Rod Davis
. Another option would be to move Henderson back to the middle and start Dontarrious Thomas
on the weak side. But Tice would prefer to leave Henderson at one position.
The risk would be starting Davis. Davis had a solid training camp but was in for two touchdowns Sunday. He was covering Buccaneers tight end Alex Smith
on a second-quarter play that resulted in a 23-yard scoring pass. Davis also was in the middle when Carnell Williams
broke a 71-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.
Backup QB Brad Johnson saw several familiar faces Sunday, standing on the sideline opposite the Tampa Bay team he led to a Super Bowl title in 2002. It was Johnson's first game back in a Vikings uniform since he was traded to Washington after the 1998 season. Johnson did get on the field as the holder for kicker Paul Edinger.
RB Michael Bennett had his worst game as a pro, rushing for minus-1 yard on six carries against Tampa Bay. Bennett, considered the team's No. 1 running back, also did not get the start. That assignment went to Moe Williams. Coach Mike Tice said Bennett would start Sunday at Cincinnati.
RB Moe Williams rushed for 9 yards on his first carry against the Buccaneers and then was held to 6 yards on five carries. Williams likely will be used in third-down situations against the Bengals. Mewelde Moore also should be part of the mix.
WR Nate Burleson had an outstanding preseason but was held to only three catches for 45 yards against Tampa Bay. The first of Daunte Culpepper's three interceptions Sunday came on a pass intended for Burleson. Culpepper also fumbled the ball when he aborted a pass attempt to Burleson. The quarterback expected to hit Burleson on a screen pass, but the receiver ran down the field instead.
WR Travis Taylor caught three passes for 38 yards against Tampa Bay. Taylor's biggest reception came on a second-and-24 play from the Vikings' 29 when he caught a 25-yard pass for a first down. The Vikings got a field goal on the drive to pull within 17-10.
WR Marcus Robinson had the same number of catches (three) as Nate Burleson and Travis Taylor against Tampa Bay. His 22 receiving yards gave him an average of only 7.3 yards per catch.
WR Troy Williamson was inserted into several offensive packages but the seventh pick in the draft did not catch a pass in his NFL debut.
TE Jermaine Wiggins caught four passes for 33 yards against Tampa Bay and also had two touchdown receptions nullified by penalties. In the third quarter, Wiggins appeared to catch a 35-yard scoring pass but he was called for pass interference. In the fourth, a 27-yard touchdown catch by Wiggins was wiped out by offsetting penalties.
TE Jim Kleinsasser, playing in his first regular-season game since suffering a season-ending knee injury in the 2004 opener, led the Vikings with four catches for 42 yards.
K Paul Edinger made both of his field-goal attempts against Tampa Bay, including a 53-yarder, but needs to show more consistency on his kickoffs, according to coach Mike Tice.
LB Keith Newman only had two tackles in Sunday's game against Tampa Bay but he caused plenty of havoc as part of a 3-4 package the Vikings unveiled, to the Buccaneers' surprise. Newman helped force an interception in the second quarter when his pressure on Brian Griese forced the Bucs QB into a bad throw that was picked off by Fred Smoot.
DE Erasmus James, the 18th overall pick in the April draft, was inactive for the Tampa Bay game. "You always want your No. 1 pick to be ready," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said when asked about the decision. "We're hoping that he'll continue to progress and put himself in positions where he's active on Sunday."