Despite Newfound Health, 3-4 Still Top Option

The expected return of Spencer Johnson probably won't change the Vikings from using the more successful 3-4 defense as their primary set Sunday in Carolina.

Forced to use a 3-4 defense because of a lack of healthy ends, it appears the Vikings have had enough success with the look to stick with it as the base package.

Left end Spencer Johnson should be able to return from a knee injury Sunday in Carolina, meaning the switch back to a 4-3 base will be an option. The 4-3 certainly will be used but the Vikings coaches liked what they saw of the 3-4 in a Week 6 loss at Chicago and last Sunday's victory over Green Bay doesn't appear to have changed their opinion.

"I've had so much experience with it before," said defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who has used the 3-4 in previous coaching stops. "If the guys execute it correctly, I knew we would be all right. That's what they've done. Having Pat (Williams) really helps because he's so familiar with it."

Indeed, the nose tackle has looked outstanding in the past two games. Williams (6-3, 317 pounds) has spent much of his time in the opponents' backfield and last Sunday was far too much for undersized Green Bay center Scott Wells to handle.

There could be one other defensive twist in place at Carolina. Trailing 17-0 at halftime to Green Bay last Sunday, the Vikings coaches decided to have cornerback Fred Smoot blanket Packers receiver Donald Driver. The results were eye-opening.

Going against either Antoine Winfield or Smoot in the first half, Driver had six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. With Smoot shadowing Driver and getting some safety help, the receiver was held to two grabs for 13 yards in the second half.

One key is that Smoot feels more comfortable playing press coverage than Winfield, making him potentially more of an irritant for receivers. If Smoot and Winfield can adjust to changing sides on a regular basis, Smoot could wind up on Carolina's Steve Smith throughout Sunday's game.

Offensively, coordinator Steve Loney said no real adjustments were made at halftime of last Sunday's victory. However, the Vikings did have success in two areas and likely will continue to employ the strategy at Carolina.

The first is an I-formation package that had a tight end lined up in the backfield with the running back. Coach Mike Tice felt that helped the inside run game.

The other was an empty backfield look that was used for the first time this season. Marcus Robinson's 27-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter — the score broke a stretch of 20 consecutive possessions without a TD — came out of that formation.

NOTES

  • QB Daunte Culpepper completed 22 of 29 passes for 357 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over Carolina on Nov. 19, 2000. That performance earned him NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

  • Backup QB Brad Johnson completed 20 of 33 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns as a member of the Washington Redskins on Oct. 3, 1999 against Carolina.

  • SS Corey Chavous recorded his first interception as a Viking when he picked off Carolina QB Rodney Peete and returned the ball 33 yards in a 21-14 loss to Carolina on Sept. 22, 2002.

  • TE Jermaine Wiggins played for Carolina in 2002 and 2003 and was a member of the Panthers team that went to Super Bowl XXXVIII in the 2003 season. Wiggins caught only eight passes during that regular season but five in the playoffs. Carolina lost the title game to New England.

  • Vikings coach Mike Tice was a teammate of Carolina kicker John Kasay in 1991 with the Seattle Seahawks.

  • Vikings assistant offensive line coach Corbin Lacina was a teammate of Panthers QB Chris Weinke at Cretin-Derham Hall High School.

  • DE Spencer Johnson, who missed a second consecutive game Sunday because of a medial collateral sprain in his right knee, should be able to return against Carolina. It's not clear what his role will be now that the Vikings are using a 3-4 defense much of the time.

  • LB Dontarrious Thomas, whom the Vikings use in their nickel defense, hopes to return Sunday after missing the Green Bay game because of a bruised right shoulder.

  • LB Napoleon Harris missed practice Wednesday because of a sore knee but returned Thursday. Harris, who lost his starting job to Keith Newman, has been bothered by the knee injury all season, according to the Vikings.

  • The Vikings worked out OL Marc Colombo but did not sign the Chicago Bears' former first-round pick.

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