Special Teams Goes Under Mike's Scope

The Vikings' weakness from last Sunday will be a point of focus for them this week.

Who is Joshua Cribbs, and why is he a focus of the Vikings this week?

Cribbs plays very sparingly for the Cleveland Browns, but the five times he touched the ball last Sunday were the only consistent bright spots for the Browns, which means Cribbs is causing a new focus for the Vikings to have better kick return coverage this week in Detroit.

"I was a little disappointed in a couple big plays," Vikings coach Mike Tice said in his review of the Browns game. "We were one of only three or four teams in the NFL that had not given up a 40-yard kickoff return against us and we went out and gave up a couple of big returns.

"We started to run behind each other a little bit. We didn't spread out. There were too many guys trying to be too violent and take out the wedge and not enough guys trying to make the play. That was probably one of the biggest disappointments. We had the kickoff coverage that was our weakness last year going pretty well. We took a step back with it last week."

While the Vikings defense held the Browns passing attack to 214 yards and rushing attempts to 78 yards, Cribbs' five kickoff returns netted 155 yards, a 31-yard average.

Cribbs' last two returns were his best two. After the Vikings opened up a 17-3 lead late in the third quarter, Cribbs took the ensuing kickoff return 48 yards to the Cleveland 48-yard line. The Browns picked up three consecutive first downs before Minnesota's defense forced Cleveland to settle for a field goal.

On his next attempt, after the Vikings had widened their lead to 24-6 with 8:47 left in the game, Cribbs returned Paul Edinger's next kickoff 47 yards to the Minnesota 43-yard line.

Just like that, one of Vikings coach Mike Tice's biggest focuses for the week will turn to a special teams coverage unit that had been very solid in its previous 10 games. Tice has a theory on why one of the team's strong points suddenly and expectedly broke down on consecutive attempts against a little-known commodity.

"One of the things I did notice in looking at the tape after talking with the training staff is that we had five or six guys that looked heavy legged. There are reasons for some of those. For example, one player is banged up and is taking less practice reps so (another) is taking all the special teams, most of the look team and then offensive plays. I think it took a toll on this player this week," Tice said. "We have to be very intelligent this week when we look at some of those players that are taking extra duty in practice, especially now that we are in the (practice facility) field house on that (FieldTurf). We have to look at some of these players that are not suiting up and they may even be practice squad players that we are very high on and get them involved in the offense and defense to make sure that the players are not heavy legged on Sunday. That is a big concern for me.

Limiting players' practice reps will be a focus. Tice said the team will drop down to 127 practice reps this week, the lowest number all season. After that, he plans on cutting out another 10 reps off the top for the remaining four weeks of the regular season.

"It is important that the plays we have out there we are doing at a very high tempo and we are not sacrificing quality. We want to make sure we keep the quality very high," Tice said. "The only way to do that is to make sure the players are not fatigued that we have in there. We probably have a few too many players doing too many things. We need to evaluate that. That is one of the things on the top of my list as we progress through this week."


Nate Burleson entered the 2005 season as the widely regarded No. 1 wide receiver on the team. To date, none of the wide receivers have really established themselves as No. 1 material, instead becoming a collection of role players who are blending nicely in accepting their individual assignments.

Tight end Jermaine Wiggins is the leading receiver with 54 catches for 482 yards. Travis Taylor has become somewhat of the third-down receiver with 37 catches for 446 yards. Marcus Robinson has become the red zone target with 24 catches for 392 yards and a team-leading five touchdowns and 16.3-yard average. Rookie Troy Williamson has been the limited-use deep threat with 20 catches for 292 yards and a second-place 14.6-yard average. Koren Robinson has come on lately and now has 12 catches for 142 yards.

And then there is Burleson, who has struggled with multiple injuries most of the season.

He has been inactive for four games this season with various ailments, but Sunday was the first in which he played that he did not catch a pass. The Vikings called a few plays they hoped would go Burleson's way, but he didn't get the ball.

"We wanted to ease Nate back in there. He blocked extremely well, and he hadn't been blocking extremely well and that is a step in the right direction. Nate is a great player for us, but the main thing is it is just like players I have tried to protect and say to you guys they are not healthy and then they come back and say they are not hurt," Tice said. "You can tell by looking at film if you have history with players if they are not feeling good. … I want to make sure the players, if they are not playing up to the potential or level that we know they can play at, we need to call it back on them a little bit and pull back on them and let him get freshened up. Nate is doing well. He came out of the game great. I saw him in there having a good workout (Monday). His body language is excellent. Nate will be an integral part of our offense as we progress, absolutely, positively. We need his energy."

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