Defenders Questing For Answers

There were plenty of players willing to talk Thursday before leaving for an extended weekend, but their responses offered only a few potential answers to what is troubling the Vikings.

The Vikings offense isn't performing. The defense is banged around and thinning. And the coaches and players continue their season-long journey for truth … and wins.

The offensive problems seem to start up front with a line that is was only credited with three of the Vikings' nine sacks on Sunday in Atlanta, but too much pressure is getting to an immobilized Daunte Culpepper.

On defense, injuries are still a big concern. Kenechi Udeze is out for the season after having knee surgery to repair a chondral defect. Cornerback Brian Williams is the other defender not expected to play against Chicago, but Williams didn't want to put a timeline on his return, saying he hasn't really tested it.

After sitting out against Atlanta, Williams offered this analysis Thursday:

"I look at certain things when I watched the game and I can't tell you what's the problem, looking at all three segments of the defense. I'm mainly watching the secondary when I'm watching the game," he said. "If all the players go out and handle their business, we won't have any problems."

One of the problems is that not every player is living up to his assignment. Head coach Mike Tice said as much Monday, and middle linebacker Sam Cowart confirmed that.

"We made some key errors and (the Falcons) capitalized on it. We made two errors on things we've been doing since way back in April. Things like that, we just have to tighten them up. It sounds like a broken record, saying the same things every week," Cowart said.

Atlanta rolled over the Vikings for 285 yards rushing, an embarrassing statistic for the defenders, especially considering scrambling quarterback Michael Vick was knocked out of the game in the second quarter and running back Warrick Dunn exposed a number of gaping holes in the defense.

"Any time you give up a lot of yards like that, you always think physically you got beat. But you look at the two quarterbacks combined … like I said, two plays where either we were aligned wrong or didn't execute right, Dunn is that type of back that will find the hole," Cowart said.

"They did what they do. (Dunn) came into the game averaging 118 yards rushing. We knew that, most of the NFL knows that. They're not fancy, they don't do a whole lot. I guess that's what we've got to do. We've got to get to the point where we find out what we do best and do that and execute it to a ‘T.' For whatever reason, we're not executing the way we're supposed to be executing on defense. We've got the players to do it, we've just got to tighten down, focus a lot more, pay closer attention in the meeting rooms."

Besides Williams, the Vikings were also missing veteran defensive end Lance Johnstone and veteran safety Darren Sharper, both key cogs in the Vikings defense, along with backup safety Willie Offord.

That forced Ken Irvin to start at safety after spending the previous 10 years of his NFL career at cornerback. The return of Sharper will add a playmaker and a traffic cop to help alleviate missed alignments.

"You're going to have to (direct traffic) at times, but hopefully you don't have to do that too much because a lot of times ,once you get caught up worrying about other players, putting this guy here and this guy there, you get yourself caught out of position," Sharper said. "You want to trust that your teammates know where to be. I think overall we've done a good job with that, but we've had some mix-ups sometimes. You just hope you don't get exposed when that happens."

There are indications that the Vikings defense has been bringing too many packages into games, overwhelming players with too much.

"I guess you could say that to simply do the little things, the steps, techniques, really focus on those things during the game," defensive lineman Darrion Scott said when asked about that.

The addition of long-time NFL defensive coach Foge Fazio this week as a defensive consultant seemed to confirm those indications. He is already working with defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell to try and right the Vikings ship.

"Teddy has been very receptive. We are throwing stuff out," Fazio said.

Said Cowart: "At this point in the year, we've got to find the one or two best things that we do and execute it to the best of our abilities."

Like many observers, the players believe they still have the talent to turn a 1-3 start to the 2005 season into a playoff run. The addition of five new defensive starters at the beginning of the year was expected to take time, but few expected the melding to be such an erratic process.

Many more players have had a chance to start in the wake of injuries, but even with depth concerns along the defensive line, and earlier in the defensive backfield with Sharper and Offord out, players remain confident that they can turn the season around and play up to their own preseason expectations.

"Definitely it's possible. Look around at all the players we've got. We've just got to go out and do it on Sundays," Williams said. "We just need to regroup, get our swagger back and come out next Sunday and get a win."

"We've got the talent to do it, but talent doesn't win ballgames," Cowart said. "The team that executes and plays as a team wins the ballgame. That's been the case in our three losses. When we played team ball, we won. But until we start playing together and start playing smart, stop giving the other team opportunities, we're going to be an average ball club. We're not going to beat the other teams. We're probably going to beat the teams we're supposed to beat, but we're not going to beat the good teams."

BEAT DOWN

The statistics from the Falcons camp shows just how bad it was last Sunday in Atlanta, but the Vikings aren't the only team suffering because of the legs of the Falcons.

The last time any team rushed for as many as 285 yards in a single game was Baltimore, which racked up 343 at Cleveland on Sept. 13, 2003.

For Falcons position coach Ollie Wilson, big production is the norm. Wilson returned for his second tour of duty with the Falcons in 2002, and the team leads the league in rushing yards (7,825) since that point.

Keeping such a frenetic pace is tough, if not impossible, to accomplish, but maintaining their average of 209 rushing yards per game would give the Falcons 3,344 and set a single-season NFL record. The 1978 New England Patriots established the league high with 3,165.

Atlanta has surpassed 200 rushing yards 10 times since Alex Gibbs arrived as line coach and Greg Knapp as coordinator in 2004. The Falcons are 9-1 in those games, with the lone loss coming at Seattle last January 2.

NOTES

  • QB Daunte Culpepper skipped his first practice of the season Thursday to rest his sore right knee. Culpepper, who has a sprained medial collateral ligament and also is battling bursitis in the knee, recently had a cortisone shot in the troubled area. He suffered the injury in the opening week against Tampa Bay. Thursday's workout was the Vikings' only one during their bye week.

  • Starting DE Kenechi Udeze will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing a microfracture procedure on his left knee, in which damaged cartilage was removed from his knee and a series of holes were drilled in the bone around it in hopes of regenerating and replacing that cartilage. The rehabilitation period is six-to-eight months.

  • Vikings defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell indicated Spencer Johnson will become the left end in the base defense but Johnson

    suffered a medial collateral sprain in his right knee in last Sunday's loss to Atlanta. Coach Mike Tice isn't sure if Johnson will be ready to return for the Vikings' next game, Oct. 16 at Chicago. Other starting options are ends Erasmus James and Lance Johnstone.

  • The Vikings were planning to bring in three free agent defensive ends for workouts, including former Seattle Seahawk Antonio Cochran, ex-Denver Bronco Anton Palepoi and Matt Mitirione, who was released by the Vikings in the final cut down of training camp.

  • Coach Mike Tice said right guard Adam Goldberg will get his first start of the season Oct. 16 against Chicago, replacing rookie Marcus Johnson. Johnson, though, will see playing time. The two each played a half against Atlanta.

  • RB Moe Williams should return Oct. 16 against Chicago after hyper-extending his right knee in Week 3 against New Orleans.

  • WR Nate Burleson is continuing to receive treatment on the sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and expects to be back Oct. 16 against Chicago.

  • DE Lance Johnstone has started to lift weights and is confident he will be able to play against Chicago on Oct. 16 after missing Sunday's game at Atlanta because of a partially torn right pectoral muscle.

  • FS Darren Sharper said he is 100 percent certain he will return Oct. 16 against Chicago after missing two games because of a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee.

  • CB Brian Williams could miss his second consecutive game Oct. 16 at Chicago because of a sprained left knee. The Vikings' nickel back was injured in Week 3 against New Orleans.

  • WR Keenan Howry, the Vikings' primary punt returner in the first three games, wasn't active against Atlanta on Sunday. The Vikings used WR Koren Robinson on punt returns, the first time he has been in that role since college. Robinson muffed one punt and lost a yard on another return.

    Syndicated content contributed to this report.


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