NOTEBOOK II: Vikings Exploit Saints Substitutes

Good teams learn to exploit the weaknesses in their opposition. We're still not sure how good this 1-2 Vikings team is, but they certainly took advantage of Saints who were forced into bigger roles because of injuries. The Vikings got the long ball rolling again and shut down New Orleans' top receiver. See how it all converged to make up Minnesota's first win and what the players and coaches had to say about it.

The Vikings were missing three important starters against New Orleans – safety Darren Sharper (knee), linebacker E.J. Henderson (ankle) and wide receiver Nate Burleson (knee) were all deactivated because of injuries.

With Sharper out, Willie Offord started at strong safety and Corey Chavous slid into Sharper's free safety role. Dontarrious Thomas started in place of Henderson at weakside linebacker and Marcus Robinson started in place of Burleson.

But even while dealing with their own injury situation, the Vikings took full advantage of the backups New Orleans was forced to start.

Right guard Jermane Mayberry and cornerback Fakhir Brown were out with injuries. The Saints also lost kick returner Michael Lewis last week, who was placed on injured reserve.

Those injuries especially hurt the Saints.

On the game's opening kickoff, Aaron Stecker, Lewis' replacement, was hit by Richard Owens and fumbled. Antoine Winfield recovered and, one play later, the Vikings had a 7-0 lead.

Stecker went to the locker room with an ankle injury and Donte Stallworth attempted to return kicks the rest of the way against the Vikings.

The injury to Brown also put points on the board for the Vikings as well. On the opening play of the Vikings' third possession, a miscommunication between cornerback Jason Craft, Brown's replacement, and safety Jay Bellamy allowed Marcus Robinson to get clean for a 68-yard reception. If not for Paul Edinger's 33-yard field goal attempt bouncing off the right upright, the Vikings would have scored on that substitution mistake.

While that play didn't results in points for Minnesota, later in the first half the Vikings would take advantage of Craft for a touchdown. Again, it happened on the first play of a Minnesota drive. This time, Troy Williamson beat Craft on a straight go route on man coverage down the left sideline for a 53-yard touchdown.

The Vikings suffered a few more injuries during the course of the game. Cornerback Brian Williams left with a sprained left knee, defensive end Lance Johnstone was knocked out with a strained chest muscle, defensive end Kenechi Udeze left with a sprained left knee before returning a short time later, and safety Willie Offord sprained his left knee. Offord's could be the most serious of the game-day injuries.


After spending the past six months answering questions about not having Randy Moss around, the Vikings finally got a long-ball touchdown from Moss' replacement, first-round draft pick Williamson.

Williamson beat Craft in single coverage against a blitzing Saints defense and Culpepper hit him in stride for a 53-yard touchdown.

Tice said he hoped teams watch the tape on Williamson and give the Vikings a little more respect on the deep patterns.

It was a play that originally was called to be a run, but Culpepper checked out of it.

"We saw the safety drop down and we had been working on that all week," Culpepper said. "It was a great look for us. We just changed the play real fast. The center made a great call in the blocking scheme of the protection. The rest was history. Troy got a good release and stood up and made a great play."

Koren Robinson also had single coverage down the right sideline.

Tice admitted earlier in the week that not having Moss has changed the way defenses approach the Vikings.

"Yes, absolutely. You don't have that threat. You don't have that consistent threat, respect if you will for the deep threat," he said. "Teams play us the way we see them on tape. Normally that wasn't the case. We'd have to wait a quarter and a half to figure out how we'd play them this particular week. It all started with how you play Randy Moss, but we have plenty of playmakers. We have to stop the turnover and make sure that we can get some consistency about ourselves on the offensive side of the ball."

Culpepper said the speed of Williamson compares with Moss's speed.

"Both of them can run like the wind," Culpepper said of Moss and Williamson. "Randy, he is a great player. He is one of the best of all time. Troy Williamson, he is coming along. He has the right attitude to be a great player."

The Vikings had pass plays of 53 yards to Williamson, 68 yards to Marcus Robinson and 24 yards to Travis Taylor. Williamson finished with 83 yards and a touchdown on three receptions.


Saints wide receiver Donte Stallworth didn't agree with a reporters' line of questioning Sunday, asking if the Vikings shut down the Saints' No. 1 receiver, Joe Horn.

"They didn't shut any of us down," Stallworth said. "Devery Henderson did step up and have a heck of a game. None of us were shut down. I don't know what it was, but I know it wasn't us being shut down."

What else do you call it when Horn had only one reception for 11 yards?

Horn disagreed with Stallworth's assessment, whether sarcastic or not.

"I had one catch," he said. "It was them, their DBs (defensive backs) shut us down. They have the best DBs I've ever played against, the best in the world. The best DBs I ever played against in my life. Fred Smoot and Winfield are the best DBs in the league. They shut us down."

Horn said one of the reasons the Saints passing game didn't get going was the blitzes the Vikings brought the Saints' way.

"They come with the blitzes, you have to be prepared to not get hit in the mouth. They blitzed a lot and that kind of kept us off balance," he said.

NO T.O. (that's turnovers)

The Vikings entered the game with 12 turnovers – eight interceptions by Daunte Culpepper, two Culpepper fumbles and two Michael Bennett fumbles. They had a league-worst minus-9 turnover differential, but on Sunday they improved to minus-5. Minnesota didn't have any turnovers while forcing two interceptions and recovering two fumbles.


Culpepper looked to make a concerted effort this week to run the football instead of forcing it into coverage. He ended up with eight rushes for 36 yards, but he thought only one of those was a called quarterback draw.

One of the negatives is that Culpepper took a bit of hit on his already sore body.

"I got banged up a little bit early. I toughed it out," he said. "I just have to make sure that I take care of my body this week and get a lot of treatment and ready for next week."

Culpepper was sacked seven times. Previously, the Saints had only one sack in two games and entered Sunday tied for last in the NFL. Tice wasn't pleased with the performance of his offensive line.

"The sacks, we have a ways to go up front," Tice said. "The young man (Marcus Johnson) struggled a little bit … we have to get better at right guard, quite frankly."

Tice said that the starting offensive line could have a different look after the bye week.


While the Vikings had to duck Saints defenders on numerous occasions, the Vikings were also able to apply pressure with some of the most aggressive defense Minnesota has employed in years.

"Today, one of the things we did real well was get after the quarterback," linebacker Keith Newman said. "We had guys in the backfield like (Antoine) Winfield, (Corey) Chavous, (Fred) Smoot, Willie Offord … our DBs do an excellent job. It was a combination of the rush up front and the coverage today. They tied it together, and hopefully we can build on what we did today and carry it through to next week when we go to Atlanta."

The Vikings are using Newman in an aggressive position this season. Sunday, he had one interception, one pass defensed and nearly recovered the fumble on the game's opening kickoff.

"I think the guys we brought in want to play more up-in-your-face type style," Tice said of his defensive acquisitions. "Trying to figure out five new free agents and some other new players and also with some injuries, it's going to take some time. But I think (Sunday) was more of the style that we should play if we're going to have any chance to be good on defense, quite honestly."


Middle linebacker Sam Cowart returned to the starting lineup after sitting out against Cincinnati with a calf injury. Cowart had only two tackles, but he directed an aggressive defense that stayed off the field more than in the first two games.

The Vikings defense was only on the field for 21 minutes, 47 seconds, just more than one-third of the game.

Much of that was due to an incredible display on third downs. Last week, the Vikings allowed Cincinnati to convert 47 percent of its third downs. This week, New Orleans converted only 2 of 12 third downs, a 17 percent conversion rate.


Wide receiver Nate Poole burned the Vikings for a touchdown with no time remaining in the 2003 season finale in Arizona, giving the Cardinals an 18-17 win and keeping the Vikings out of the playoffs while allowing the Packers to win the NFC North. Poole was celebrated in Green Bay, but now as a recent pickup of the New Orleans Saints, Poole's luck has changed.

Against the Vikings Sunday, Poole wasn't used much as a receiver, but he did get his name called for a phantom illegal block in the back that negated a punt return for a touchdown.


With the Saints down 24-9 and needing a score at the beginning of the fourth quarter, defensive back Ken Irvin had a rough time of it as a replacement for the injured Brian Williams. The drive started with a sack by Darrion Scott that was negated on a defensive holding penalty on Irvin.

Eight plays later, with the Saints thwarted with an incomplete pass on fourth-and-goal from the 6-yard line, Irvin was flagged for pass interference. Running back Deuce McAllister ran it in from 1-yard out on the next play for a touchdown to pull the Saints within eight points with 11:40 to play.

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