The Vikings dealt with plenty of criticisms after their first two losses, but even after a win they continued to critique their own work in an effort to improve.
The offense easily had its best game of the season in its 33-16 win over New Orleans. Daunte Culpepper passed for 300 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and the running game produced 147 yards, but still …
"Line play continues to be the area where we need to improve the most," head coach and former offensive line coach Mike Tice said.
Specifically, Tice is still concerned about the interior of the offensive line, where the Vikings lost Pro Bowl center Matt Birk to another hip surgery before the season even began. To compound matters, rookie Marcus Johnson, who has started all three games and been pulled at one point or another in each of the three, is still struggling.
The Vikings pulled Johnson again Sunday and inserted Adam Goldberg, who entered training camp as a starting guard. When he struggled, too, they went to Anthony Herrera, who just recently recovered from a staph infection in his leg that kept him out of much of training camp and the start of the regular season.
Both Goldberg and Herrera joined the Vikings in the last two years as undrafted rookie free agents. Johnson was a second-round draft pick in April.
"We need to continue to develop our young players and work with them and get the right mix of guys in there that can be consistent," Tice said. "When we block we can make yards running the ball, and when we block we certainly can make yards throwing the ball. We have to continue to work hard to get our young players to continue to improve and be more consistent than anything."
The Vikings would like nothing more than to have Johnson play consistently and put a stranglehold on that starting spot. Surprisingly, at 6-foot-6 and 321 pounds, Johnson has been overpowered at times.
Tice estimated that 90 percent of the problems with the offensive line were physical and only 10 percent were due to missed assignments, and most of those are coming inside.
"I think our left tackle (Bryant McKinnie) is playing at a very high level. I thought our right tackle (Mike Rosenthal) played very well. It is a comfort when you have your left tackle able to be out on an island and he can help inside," Tice said. "I think inside on the right side we have a ways to go before we are consistent enough to do some of the things we want to do. We need to improve in the middle more than anything. I think we have to continue to look at who is playing and who is playing how much and do we need to play a number of guys in there?
"Like I said during the week, I don't know that we have the five guys in there that are going to be the five guys in there three or four weeks from now. I don't know that we have the right group right now, but we'll see as it progresses."
Center Melvin Fowler, acquired from Cleveland in a trade the week before the regular season, has been seeing more time with the first-team offense. He was expected to see some playing time in relief of Cory Withrow on Sunday, and Tice said he regretted not getting Fowler some playing time on offense.
However, he said he hesitated to insert Fowler because they were too busy trying to find a right guard whose play was satisfactory to them.
"I don't think that anyone will play the whole game right now," Tice said. "I think that we are still trying to make sure that we have the right guys. At the same time, it puts me in a bind at the center position because I don't want to try a new center when I am trying a new guard."
The rotation of guards likely will continue if Johnson struggles against a tough Falcons defense Sunday afternoon, but the Vikings are likely to start moving Fowler into the center rotation during the bye week following the Atlanta game if he doesn't see action again Sunday.
This much is sure: The Vikings are still searching for answers on their offensive line.
The Vikings gave up seven sacks to New Orleans after the Saints registered only one sack in their first two games. However, not all of those sacks can be attributed to the offensive line. Tice said two sacks were the responsibility of the running backs (Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams and Michael Bennett), and Daunte Culpepper admitted that he made a concerted effort to not force the ball into coverage.
That means he may have been holding onto the ball longer than usual.
"Sometimes in the game of football it may look real bad, but those are the decisions I have to make sometimes, and sometimes I have to eat it and sometimes I got to tuck it down and run," Culpepper said.
Wide receiver Koren Robinson probably escaped the view of many Sunday when he didn't have a catch. One senior columnist didn't even know he played on offense.
But while Robinson didn't have any receptions, his contributions came in other ways. Twice in the first quarter, he had some very solid blocks to help spring running back Moore on stretch running plays.
Robinson did enter the statistics with his kick returns. He had one important return in the second half that went for 46 yards.
"One time he leaped over a defender that was on the ground. If he could have had one more block he might have done a little damage on that one too," Tice said. "He ran the ball extremely hard. He is a very gifted athlete. He is big. He'll bring some juice to our football team. As he gets his sea legs underneath him, I think his role will expand more and more also."
Robinson ended the game with four returns for 91 yards.
"I talked with some of you about how close we had been on some kick returns we had blocked pretty well," Tice said. "In fact, we were in the same boat this week. In fact, the one Koren bobbled a little bit, that one was blocked pretty decently also."
ARRESTS NOT A BIG CONCERN
Tice warned that fans and media shouldn't jump to conclusions after the arrest of offensive linemen Johnson and McKinnie.
The two were arrested for disorderly conduct after 3 a.m. on Monday morning in downtown Minneapolis, and there have been conflicting reports regarding what happened.
"I think once the story comes out, I don't think anyone will be disappointed. I think it was a very odd situation that went on (Sunday) night. We will see as the police and our people and the attorneys get together, we'll see what comes out of the story," Tice said.
"I would not jump to any conclusions, and I certainly know from what I have heard and if I am being told the correct information, which I usually am, there was no fight involved. Let's see how it plays out before we judge. I don't know that there was anything done wrong. Let that play out before we judge too harshly."
Offensive Line Still A Concern
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