Safety Can Contribute Knowledge vs. Falcons

Darren Sharper worked alongside two current Falcons coaches and two Falcons players while they were all in Green Bay. The safety's experience with them could help the Vikings, even if Sharper is held out of the game with a knee injury. Plus, find out why Mike Tice thinks the special teams have improved, and get more on the offensive line and series history notes.

Safety Darren Sharper's availability for Sunday's game in Atlanta likely will be a game-time decision. His usefulness as a Viking, especially this week, transcends his ability to make it on the field.

Sharper is in his ninth NFL season and has made two Pro Bowls, and his knowledge of the game and ability to help out teammates is always present, but it might be even more valuable this week because of the safety's familiarity with several Atlanta Falcons.

Sharper played in Green Bay with Falcons cornerback/kick returner Allen Rossum and tackle Barry Stokes, and was part of the Packers when Ed Donatell was their defensive coordinator and Jeff Jagodzinski was their offensive line coach. All four of those men are now with the Falcons.

Especially intriguing is Sharper's knowledge of Donatell, who was shipped out of Green Bay following the 2003 season after four years there. He became the fall guy for the Packers' defensive decline.

"Ed is a good guy as far as mixing it up and being aggressive and also playing zone coverages and different schemes to try to confuse offenses," Sharper said. "He's a real good guy as far as what's going to fit and be effective against certain-type offenses. He knows how to utilize players. If you have guys good at blitzing, he knows how to get those guys in and use them, use their ability."

Donatell turned around the Falcons' defense in several major categories from 2003 to 2004, his first season in Atlanta. In the first season after his arrival, the Falcons gave up 5.3 fewer points per game, 56 fewer yards, 37 fewer rushing yards and got 48 sacks – 12 more than in 2003 and moving them from 15th in the league to first.

The best statistic was helping move Atlanta from a 5-11 record in 2003 to 11-5 in 2004, when they reached the NFC Championship game.

How could the Packers let go of him? Sharper said Donatell got a raw deal.

"With the players he had, I though he did a good job putting players in the best position to win games," Sharper said. "The (2003 playoff) game he was fired for wasn't really his fault. You can say he was the scapegoat or whatever, but I really think Ed was a great coordinator for us. When he first got there, we were top-10 in defense and the year before that we were 20-something."

The Vikings will also be facing Rossum, who might not play too much as a nickel back because of a sore hamstring. The Falcons may save him for his explosiveness on punt and kick returns.

"Rossum, he's probably one of the top five return guys in the league as far as ability to break it and take it all the way," Sharper said. "He has good vision and is a tough guy."

In his seven-year career, Rossum has averaged 22.8 yards per kickoff return and 11 yards per punt return. He has taken six returns – three on punts and three on kickoffs – in for touchdowns.

He had a 90-yard kickoff return against the Vikings in 2000.


Tight end Richard Owens, who was the Vikings' special teams player of the week against New Orleans, will captain that unit in Atlanta. Willie Offord, who was the special teams captain this year, was placed on injured reserve this week with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and will have surgery in two weeks.

Owens had a solid all-around game against the Saints, but his specialty with the Vikings is on kick and punt coverage.

"In college, I was a long snapper. I was on the punt team. That kind of helps me being able to read the coverage," he said. "Overall, I wasn't really a big kickoff guy or punt return guy (in college)."

Owens said the addition of punter Chris Kluwe, who leads the league with a 49.9-yard gross average, has helped the Vikings. But it's not just punting for distance that has helped.

"He's been killing the ball, and the protection has been good there," Owens said. "It always helps when you've got a guy that can hang the ball the way he does."

Kluwe was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September, and Tice has been pleased with most of the special teams to date. One of the reasons for the improvement is using more starters on special teams.

"All of our starters have really embraced their role," Tice said. "For example, Jermaine Wiggins started on kickoff return last week and Jimmy Kleinsasser started on punt return. Both players did very, very well. All the starters have embraced their roles on the special teams. We have more starters involved. We have now got three four-team players. We have Richard Owens, who was special teams player of the week last week, Rod Davis and Raonall Smith. Those three football players played all four special teams so they should be the top guys in your statistics."

You can partially credit Vikings legendary coach Bud Grant for Tice using more starters now.

"I had a meeting with Bud Grant," Tice said. "We talked about special teams in the offseason, and Bud mentioned that he would use a starter on at least one team. I started to put together in my mind to see what starter would be good on what team. I actually sat down with a lot of my starters – the Sam Cowarts, the Jim Kleinsassers, the Corey Chavous, Darren Sharper who wanted to play R3 on kickoff. I sat down with some of the guys and talked about what role would you like to play, and every single guy really embraced it. That was when I really started to think about the change, after I talked to Coach Grant in the offseason."


Tice called right guard Marcus Johnson "our guy" earlier this week, but the rookie has struggled with the inconsistency that often dogs rookie linemen. That means the Vikings are prepared to go with a rotation at right guard until Johnson settles into his role.

Johnson will start Sunday, with Adam Goldberg coming off the bench first, followed by Anthony Herrera, whom Tice said was too aggressive last week against New Orleans.

"The plus of Anthony and the minus of Anthony is he's going to hit and destroy anything that is in his path. The problem with pass protection is that there is so much finesse built into pass protection that if four of your linemen are at this depth and one of your linemen is up there trying to knock a guy out two yards in front of them, you create major seams in protection and we have a little bit of that going on," Tice said. "He was blocking the right guy, but we tried to let him know that this is not a running play, it is a passing play and it doesn't mean drive your guy into the ground. We will settle him down, and the more he plays the better Anthony will become."

Melvin Fowler is also expected to rotate in at center this week behind Cory Withrow. That was the plan last week, too, but Tice said he hesitated to rotate centers with the rotation going on at right guard.

"Without a doubt, unquestionably, I think Melvin Fowler needs to play in the game this week, and both players have been indicated of that. Both players will play in the game this week."


  • Vikings receiver Troy Williamson did not get the NFL Rookie of the Week award he was nominated for. Williams had a three catches for 83 yards against New Orleans. As expected, the award went to Tampa Bay running back Carnell Williams, who rushed for 158 yards on 37 carries against Green Bay and has an a rookie NFL record of 434 yards in his first three games.

  • QB Daunte Culpepper has faced the Falcons once in his career, completing 23 of 43 passes for 266 yards with three interceptions and only one touchdown in a 30-24 overtime loss on Dec. 1, 2002. Culpepper had a 51.1 quarterback rating that day. He missed a 39-26 victory at Atlanta the following season after suffering a lower back injury two weeks prior at Detroit.

  • Backup QB Brad Johnson had a big game against the Falcons while playing for Tampa Bay, throwing for 276 yards and four touchdowns on Dec. 8, 2002.

  • Three Vikings receivers have had big days against the Falcons while playing for different organizations. Travis Taylor had four receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown while playing for Baltimore on Nov. 3, 2002; Marcus Robinson had nine catches for 114 yards and a touchdown while playing for Chicago on Oct. 7, 2001; and Koren Robinson had nine receptions for 143 yards while playing for Seattle on Dec. 15, 2002.

  • Vikings assistant secondary coach Kevin Ross played two seasons for Atlanta (1994-95), posting a career-high 124 tackles in 1994.

  • The Vikings played one of their most memorable, not to mention disappointing, games in franchise history against the Falcons, losing 30-27 in overtime in the NFC title game during the 1998 season. That Vikings team had gone 15-1 during the regular season and cruised to a 41-21 victory over Arizona in its first playoff game. Kicker Gary Anderson had made all 106 kicks he attempted that season before missing a 38-yard field-goal attempt with 2:07 remaining in regulation at the Metrodome. Morten Andersen made the winning kick in the extra session to send the Falcons to the Super Bowl.

  • The Vikings opened the 1999 season in Atlanta, beating the Falcons 17-14 en route to a 10-6 regular-season record.

  • The Vikings edged the Falcons 30-24 on Jan. 9, 1983 in the Super Bowl tournament that was used after the 1982 season was shortened by a strike. Washington beat the Vikings 21-7 the following week.

  • Norm Van Brocklin, who coached the Vikings from their first season in 1961 through 1966, also served as the Falcons coach for five-plus seasons.

    Syndicated content contributed to this report.

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