The Vikings appear set to go with a 3-4 base defense for a third consecutive game Sunday when they play at Carolina.
Forced to go with the look two weeks ago against Chicago because of a lack of healthy defensive ends, the Vikings coaches liked what they saw against Chicago and Green Bay.
The Bears beat Minnesota 28-3 two weeks ago, but 14 of Chicago's points came when it took over deep in Vikings territory. Last Sunday, the Vikings rallied to edge Green Bay 23-20 as the defense gave up only three second-half points.
"We worked on the 34 defense the entire training camp, but it was mostly a nickel 34," coach Mike Tice said. "We didn't play any 34 defense in preseason games, but we played a lot of it - except for the paid scrimmages on Tuesday nights - in practice. It was successful in our ‘dog' package.
"But when we had Kenechi (Udeze) and Spencer (Johnson) go down at the same time and we had two weeks during the bye to do something, I felt in talking with (defensive coordinator) Teddy Cottrell and our staff that it would be the best way for our team to go. Now if Spencer is healthy do we make that same decision? I can't tell you, because at the time, he wasn't."
Johnson is ready to return from a knee injury and figures to be used as a backup lineman. Kevin Williams and Darrion Scott will start at end and Pat Williams at nose tackle.
Part of what has made the 3-4 a success is the play of outside linebackers Keith Newman and Raonall Smith, neither of whom were starters at the beginning of the season. Newman has replaced Napoleon Harris on the strong side and Smith was brought in as the extra linebacker.
"It works well for our two middle guys, E.J. (Henderson) and Sam (Cowart), and we have two perfect guys coming off the edge in Raonall (Smith) and 52 (Keith Newman)," Tice said. "It suits our linebackers pretty good."
Panthers coach John Fox believes that outside linebacker Will Witherspoon is finally close to 100 percent following a lateral collateral ligament knee sprain he suffered earlier in the season.
In the first two games of 2005, Witherspoon looked like the dominant outside linebacker the Carolina Panthers always hoped he would become. With 18 tackles, a batted pass and an acrobatic diving interception of New England's Tom Brady, Witherspoon seemed to be all over the field.
But since missing Carolina's Week 3 game against Miami with a knee injury, he has been less visible and has at times seemed a little slow to react, even though he has 23 tackles during that span.
In Carolina's most recent game against Detroit, Witherspoon was beaten in coverage by tight end Marcus Pollard for an 86-yard pass play, something that almost never happened to him in the second half of last season, when he began to emerge as a solid linebacker.
Thursday, Fox said he thinks the knee problem hindered Witherspoon's effectiveness more than fans know, but said he believes last week's bye has helped him immensely.
"I think it hurt him when he first came back," Fox said. "He wasn't 100 percent. I think at this stage now he is back to 100 percent.
"These guys for the most part understand the difference between pain and injury, and he definitely had pain even though he was off the injury report and out there playing. But that has gotten better as we've moved forward."