If good things come in threes, then it's good to be playing the Vikings, who are becoming notorious for penalties, sacks and turnover on offense. That's the bad news; the worse news is that it isn't getting any better.
In the preseason, head coach Mike Tice simplified the diagnosis process for the media, saying they could tell who was winning the battle of the trenches by seeing which way the surge of linemen were going. Ya think? Using that indicator, the purple and white jerseys have been going backwards too much this season, leading to far too many sacks – 21 in four games so far this season and nine in Atlanta. On the other side of the ball, Minnesota's six active defensive linemen were being pushed back by Alex Gibbs' offensive line as well Sunday.
To further complicate matters, penalties continued to be too prevalent.
In the first four games, the Vikings have amassed 35 penalties for 264 yards. The offensive line is, once again, a major culprit.
Then there are the tribulations of quarterback Daunte Culpepper. For the third time in four games this season, Culpepper had multiple turnovers. He opened the season with eight interceptions and two lost fumbles in the first two games, then improved for no interceptions or fumbles in a win against the Saints. He reverted to his turnover ways against the Falcons, throwing two interceptions and fumbling it twice, losing it once, accounting for – you guessed it – three turnovers.
Culpepper was also part of the problem in the sack department. The Falcons brought pressure with blitzes on a number of his sacks, but there were other times when Culpepper simply held onto the ball too long while taking sacks and didn't follow the running lead of the Falcons.
The home team's two quarterbacks rushed eight times for 114 yards. Culpepper has struggled with a knee injury since the start of the season, which he claimed was 100 percent before the Saints game and clearly isn't, but it took him until fourth quarter, when the Falcons had a 27-0 lead, before he finally ran for 10 yards. As it turned out, that was the once-mobile quarterback's only rush of the game.
Eliminate Culpepper's eight rushes against the Saints and he has run only six times in the other three games. An average of two rushes per game takes away a dangerous asset from an offense that was once labeled "explosive."
Just how bad did it get Sunday? In one sadly comical play midway through the third quarter, the Vikings had all three mistake-prone areas converge on the same play. Culpepper dropped to pass, then dropped the ball when defensive tackle Rod Coleman forced the fumble that Patrick Kerney recovered. Coleman got the sack, Kerney got the ball, and a holding call on Chris Liwienski was declined. One play, three mistakes – sack, turnover, penalty.
Those three negatives might outweigh the one easy answer from the national media – the loss of star wide receiver Randy Moss, one of three overdone headlines when it comes to national analysis of the Vikings.
The top three excuses used by national pundits why the Vikings offense is struggling in 2005: 1) No Randy Moss; 2) No Matt Birk; 3) No Scott Linehan. Each of those are valid excuses, but without Birk helping lead the protection schemes and execution for Culpepper, the quarterback might not have the time to use Moss even if he was still donning a purple jersey. Linehan is in Miami, so it's now up to the combination of another triumvirate – head coach Mike Tice, offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Steve Loney and quarterbacks coach Rich Olson to settle down the newly erratic signal-caller.
In their first two losses, the Vikings defense didn't make their goal on third downs. According to safety Darren Sharper, a good game on defense would consist of getting off the field 70 percent of the time on third down. Against Cincinnati and Tampa Bay, the Vikings allowed the opposing offense to convert third downs 47 percent of the time. In those two games, the Vikings offense converted 56 and 45 percent of its third downs.
Against New Orleans, the Vikings defense was vastly improved, limiting the Saints to converting only 17 percent of their third downs (2 of 12) while the Minnesota offense converted 35 percent of its third downs, still barely good enough.
In Atlanta, not only did the Vikings give up third downs on defense, they couldn't convert them on offense. The confused offense turned third down into first down only once in 10 attempts, and that didn't come until the game was out of hand in the fourth quarter. The Falcons, meanwhile converted 57 percent (8 of 14) of their third downs.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
Need a reason to stay positive about the Vikings going into the bye week? We present the month of October.
Since 1995, the Vikings have the league's fourth-best winning percentage (.649) in October. Pittsburgh leads the way at .744, followed by Philadelphia at .684 and Tennessee at .650.
Despite the bye week, the Vikings still have three more games this month, going to Chicago on Oct. 16 and Carolina Oct. 30 and hosting Green Bay on Oct. 23.
Chicago and Carolina are 1-2 and the Packers are 0-3 heading into the Monday night game. The Vikings' first four opponents are a combined 13-3 to date.
The road ahead should get easier, but the Vikings must get better as a team.
THE 100 CLUB
Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison broke into the 100 Club this weekend. Harrison needed only one touchdown to get 100 for his career, and he had two of them Sunday.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens needed two to break into the club and he got one.
Why is this of note to Vikings fans? Well, of course, the Vikings stake claim to Cris Carter, who caught 130 touchdowns over his NFL career, good for second place behind Jerry Rice's 197. It took Rice 120 games to reach 100 TDs, while it took Carter 180 games. Owens has played in 139 games and Harrison 142 (counting this weekend).
Steve Largent and Tim Brown also have 100 touchdowns exactly. It took Largent 198 games to reach that mark, while Brown needed 243.
The Vikings contributed to Tampa Bay running back Carnell Williams having his shoes on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Cadillac's career started with a 148-yard game, including a 71-yard touchdown run to seal the Bucs' win late in the fourth quarter against the Vikings in the season opener.
The Vikings also had a chance to make heroes out of their second opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals. Daunte Culpepper threw five interceptions to the Bengals on Sept. 18, and Cincinnati entered this weekend with 12 interceptions, needing five more to top the NFL mark of 16 in the first four games of a season. Cincinatti beat Houston on Sunday, but it didn't garner any interceptions.
The Bengals' 12 interceptions after three games was the most since 1961.
BUCKED FROM FIRST
After the Bucs beat the Vikings in the season opener, Tampa Bay did the Vikings a favor in Week 4. Tampa Bay beat the NFC North's Detroit 17-13, but it took an intense final 13 seconds of the game and a reversal of a touchdown ruling on the field.
With 13 seconds left and trailing 17-13, Lions quarterback Joey Harrington hit tight end Marcus Pollard, who was sliding out of bounds. That play was originally ruled a touchdown but overturned on review. With 6 seconds left, Harrington connected with Mike Williams in the end zone, but the rookie receiver had his right foot out of bounds on left sideline in the end zone when he came down. On the final play of the game, Harrington bought time in the pocket and lofted a pass too high for Roy Williams in the end zone, giving Tampa Bay a 4-0 record to start the 2005 season.
Cincinnati, the team the Vikings lost to in Week 2, also won Sunday, giving the Bengals a 4-0 record. The Vikings' opening three weeks was thought to be a good draw with Tampa Bay, Cincinnati and New Orleans, but Paul Tagliabue's parity-filled league struck again.
Triplets Of Doom
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