It started with the decision not to re-sign long-time veteran guard David Dixon. While he had been with the Vikings since 1994 and a regular starter since 1997, Dixon was reportedly having one of his better seasons last year. However, the Vikings decided to go with a youth movement, hoping second-round pick Marcus Johnson would be able to assume a starting role.
First, Johnson struggled at left guard, then was moved to right guard to start the first four game of the regular season. After being regularly replaced by Adam Goldberg in those first four games, Johnson was finally replaced in the starting lineup by Goldberg last Sunday.
That coincided with the insertion of Melvin Fowler as the starting center, taking over for Cory Withrow, who started the first four games in place of Matt Birk, who went on injured reserve before the season began. It was all a little more than the offensive line could handle, but the latest version showed some promise.
"It seemed like Adam and Melvin both did a nice job (against Chicago). I think Melvin particularly coming into a new system definitely has some things to work on, but I think it was an encouraging start," Birk said.
The Vikings have given up 24 sacks and Culpepper has thrown 12 interceptions to date, one more than he chucked all of last season. While Culpepper was sacked four times in Chicago, one of those came on a red zone play where he was flushed from the pocket and should have thrown the ball away instead of stepping harmlessly out of bounds 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Another sack came late in the game in a desperation move when he was sacked at the Vikings 1-yard line on fourth down. In that case, Culpepper could have lobbed a pass high into the air – if it would have been intercepted then it was about as good as a punt; if caught, it would have given the Vikings a shred of hope. Instead, the Bears were 1 yard away from taking a 28-3 lead.
It all meant the Vikings should have given up only two sacks, a big improvement over their average of five in the previous four games.
Tice said he plans on sticking with the combination of offensive linemen from the Chicago game for a while, with Fowler and Goldberg in the starting lineup.
"I thought Goldy played real well," Tice said. "He had one holding call. I was sitting there saying what a great block and then the flag came out. I thought Goldberg played pretty well. He played with passion, which he always does, he kept his head up for the most part. The times he got into trouble it's because he had his head in there. I liked the way he played.
"I thought Fowler, physically, played well. I think mentally he still has a ways to go, as far as knowing what we want him to do. A couple times he got into a little rut, and it hurt us a little bit. But physically he's got good balance, good leverage he plays with, and he's very quick."
However, that combination may not last more than a few weeks. After trading for San Diego guard Toniu Fonoti earlier this week, he could be a starter within a month's time. He will have to wait until his hand heals from two surgeries earlier this season and hope his weight doesn't delay his insertion into the lineup.
"He is a number of weeks away from being able to play in the game. Next week he'll get a splint on that thing and be able to practice and get his game conditioning back," Tice said. "He is a big man. We're happy to have him. … We get that addition of another big offensive lineman."
The addition of Fonoti might eventually lead to Johnson working at right tackle, where veteran Mike Rosenthal has struggled lately. Rosenthal had a hard time with Bears left end Adewale Ogunleye and committed a number of penalties.
"I believe that half the offensive penalties have been procedural penalties," Tice said. "It is totally unacceptable. I addressed it with the players. … It has to be fixed. It has to be fixed yesterday. Quite frankly, it gets to a point that if it is the same guys they just can't play."
When Johnson was drafted, the Vikings said he could play either guard or tackle. With his 6-foot-6 frame, Johnson might be better suited at tackle.
SHUFFLE UP AND SCREEN
Tice said one of the reasons the Vikings haven't been able to run the screen play as effectively as usual is the shuffling up front in the offensive line, which has hurt the continuity and timing of the play.
"I don't think that the first two games we called any (screens). We have had different linemen in and out," he said. "It is one of the things that really takes a lot of timing. With the different linemen in and out, the timing of it has been a little bit herky-jerky. I know we worked real hard on it during the bye to get the screens going. We have a couple of backs that run the screens very, very well. I think it is part of the makeup of our football team that needs to still be there because we have been a good screen team over time."
The screen is an effective play to take the aggression out of a defensive lineman that continues to charge hard at the quarterback, making it even more necessary for a team that has struggled with too many sacks allowed this season.
DISTRACTING FROM THE GOOD
With so much attention paid to the Vikings' so-called "Love Boat" scandal the last two weeks, Tice made a point to emphasize the good things the Vikings do in the community.
"Last year, according to the league report put out, of the top five teams in the community the Vikings were number one with 209 player appearances. The next teams were San Diego, Atlanta, Houston and Arizona. The Vikings were number one," he said. "So we have some good guys that are doing a lot of good things in the community, which kind of gets lost in it when there are some poor decisions made. I want to make note of that. This year alone we did a player participation and (sent) three trucks to Katrina relief. We have been able to put up $5,000 from the player fine money to support a youth clinic over at St. Thomas that was highly attended."
The Vikings usually have player appearances at school or hospitals on Tuesdays during the season.
SOME IN, SOME OUT
Wide receiver Nate Burleson is set to return to the playing field Sunday after missing the majority of the season to date.
"Nate is a play maker. Having him back will definitely lift the team offensively," Culpepper said. "He is the type of guy that can give you those two or three big plays a game, and that might be what we need right now. I am happy for that, and he is looking real good."
The addition of Koren Robinson to the roster earlier this season hasn't really helped soften the blow of losing Randy Moss for the future and Nate Burleson for the last three games.
Robinson has only one catch for 4 yards for the Vikings and hasn't been a factor in returning kickoffs, averaging 21.3 yards per return.
"You know, we had Koren in a couple plays to catch some touchdowns, but it never worked out that way," Tice said of Sunday's game in Chicago. "He played a number of plays, in a number of packages. We had two nice plays for him, one we didn't call and the other we didn't get the ball to him because of a read. But I think Koren is coming along."
Also scheduled to return to the lineup against the Packers are nickel back Brian Williams and defensive end Spencer Johnson.
Linebacker Dontarrious Thomas hurt his shoulder in practice this week.
"There are no tears or anything like that in there," Tice said. "It is some severe bruising to the shoulder capsule. So we'll see how he progresses. He slept at the facility (Wednesday) night so he could get treatment every two hours. The main thing with that is how much strength will be back in the shoulder by Sunday and how much pain can he endure? We'll see how he progresses. He'll probably be a Saturday decision based on that."
Quotes from players and coaches on the Vikings' more frequent use of the 3-4 defense, used the majority of the game Sunday in Chicago.
Packers coach Mike Sherman, on if he was surprised by the Vikings repeated use of the defense: "Surprised? Not necessarily. I think it's good coaching to take advantage of your personnel, which they certainly have with injuries that they had at the defensive end position with Kenechi Udeze and Spencer Johnson out. They decided this is the way to go. With a bye week and the opportunity to change something, we're always taking advantage of that as well as they have. No, I'm not surprised at all. It seems like it helped them and they played well."
Safety Darren Sharper: "I think the schemes that we did brought some speed on the field, brought some guys that can move around and do different things. And we played with a little more of an aggressive attitude. Whenever you do that, you're going to have an opportunity to play at a higher level on defense."
"Just the basics of the 3-4, you can do a lot more things with it, as far as mixing up coverages, just the fact that you've got a linebacker covering instead of having to worry about a defensive lineman. If you have linebackers who are strong enough to go against the run, you don't have to bring that extra lineman in the game for the run. It allows you to do a lot of different things."
Safety Corey Chavous: "It worked good for us (Sunday) and we feel good about it, I think the team feels good about it. I liked the way (Raonall Smith) played."
MOMENTUM FAVORS PACKERS
The Packers are on a one-game winning streak, although they are two weeks removed from it after a bye last weekend.
Both teams being 1-4 isn't exactly the thing that national telecasts are made of, but it's still a division rivalry game.
"Certainly playing Minnesota and what they represent to us as a rival will play a factor in it, as well as the fact that we are both in desperate need of a win," Sherman said. "Both of us detest where we are in regard to this division and regard to the National Football League. We want desperately to pull ourselves out of the hole we are in, so I'm sure it will be quite a battle on the field."
Moss did not practice Thursday and was listed as doubtful.
"If he recovers and can run full speed, we'd love to have him," Turner said, although it was clear he did not expect anything that dramatic over the next few days.
The Bills aren't buying it. Moss has 19 catches for a whopping 24.5 yards per catch average and two touchdowns. In comparison, Buffalo's leading receiver, Eric Moulds, is averaging 8.4 yards on 24 catches.
"I'm sure Randy will play," Bills FS Troy Vincent said. "We've seen this situation before and he's a tremendous competitor. The critics want to say he's not, but he's the truth. He's the real deal. When he's on the field, he's a tremendous threat. He can score anytime he touches the football and we're preparing for him to play."