On Minnesota's defensive line, only two really experienced defensive linemen reside—Pat Williams and Lance Johnstone. Williams is in his ninth NFL season and playing like a Pro Bowler. Johnstone is in his 10th season and still capable of producing 10 sacks in a season in his specialist's role.
Beyond those two, however, is a line of inexperienced players with less than three years under their belts. Rookie Erasmus James has been starting at end, the same with second-year Viking Darrion Scott. Spencer Johnson, an undrafted rookie last year, is expected back this week, which is a good thing considering the team will be without third-year player Kevin Williams.
In his Kevin Williams' starting spot will be rookie sixth-rounder C.J. Mosley making his first start.
"C.J. is one of those guys who is hungry too, and he got his chance to get in there and got in there and did what he had to do," said James, a first-round pick of the Vikings this year.
In his first extensive action last week, Mosley tied for the team lead with seven tackles and led the team with two sacks, and there is little doubt he benefited from playing right next to Pat Williams, who has been a large interior force all season.
"I told C.J. Mosley when he came in the game, ‘Don't worry about nothing. Don't think, just have fun, like you practice.' That's how all the guys are playing right now. You have to go out there every day and just think that nobody can block you. I tell all the young guys that. You can't go out there thinking or scared of nobody. You have to think you're going to destroy the guy in front of you, so I've got all the young guys thinking like that now.
"I always smell fear in the centers and guards, so I go get it."
Indeed, the defensive line has been getting pressure on its opponents during the Vikings' four-game winning streak, and coaches are quick to point out that the pressure is coming without the assistance of blitzing as often as they did in the first part of the season.
Last Sunday against Cleveland, the defense got five sacks, with only one of those coming from a blitzing linebacker. That pressure helped create three interceptions and two forced fumbles. It was also the highest number of sacks the Vikings have produced this season. Only once this year had they produced even four sacks, and that was against this week's opponent, the Detroit Lions.
When James was drafted, he talked about roaming the upstairs halls of Winter Park and gazing at pictures of the Purple People Eaters, the legendary defensive linemen from the Vikings' Super Bowl era. He looked at the talent being assembled for the 2005 season and hoped that talent might someday resemble the production of the PPE of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Now, 11 games into the 2005 season, last year's first-round draft choice, defensive end Kenechi Udeze, is on injured reserve, and 2003 first-round draft choice Kevin Williams is out for at least a couple weeks. Even with the loss of those two, the pressure is coming, but these Vikings are still a long way off from the glory days of Jim Marshall, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Carl Eller.
"We're getting the pressure we need, but we don't think we're to (the Purple People Eaters) point yet because we think we can play a lot better than what we've been playing the last few weeks," James said.
Consistency will be the key, and that might be hard to attain with so many players rotating in and out of the defensive line rotation with injuries. That has created opportunities for rookie James and Mosley to show their stuff, and linebacker Keith Newman says there is no attempt to protect the rookies.
"Production-wise, they're outstanding. They're coming in and seizing their opportunities," Newman said. "When those guys come in, they have to be up to speed on the game plan we put in for the week."
So far, they have been. James admits he isn't comfortable yet, and head coach Mike Tice says James still has a ways to go. But the respect of opponents is starting to come.
"I saw some double-teams (against Cleveland), some chips off the edge, so it kind of slowed me down a bit," James said.
Playing on either side of Pat Williams has to help James and Mosley. Williams is a player who has a deep-rooted love of the battle in the trenches and admits to playing with an attitude dating back to his days of being an undrafted rookie.
In his rookie season, however, Williams never saw the field on defense. Instead, he spent his first year in Buffalo learning from talented veteran defensive linemen.
"I didn't play a lot because I had a lot of veterans. I was just sitting back and learning from them and practicing good," he said. "Then I got in my second year after sitting back asking questions and learning the tricks of the trade from Ted Washington, Bruce Smith. … If you can sit back and watch for a year, it's good."
The Vikings aren't afforded that luxury this year with Kevin Williams and Udeze out. Rookies like James and Mosley have been elevated into starting roles, and in Mosley's case he'd be just a senior at the University of Missouri this year after entering the draft a year early. But defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell can't worry about developing rookies on the bench anymore.
"I can't worry about that. I'm worried about this year," Cottrell said. "I'm not worried about his future, I'm worried about mine."
That future is looking a little more secure each week, with each passing victory, thanks to the improved play of the young defensive line.
Tice made a point to start his Thursday press conference with a positive update on quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who is recovering from knee surgery to repair torn ACL, MCL and PCL ligaments.
"His body language is great. He is working extremely hard. I'm sure his rehab will come along much faster than others who have the same type of injury because he is such a warrior," Tice said. "His spirits are great. He is in a tremendous mood. I know he is going to be able to go out and except this challenge and beat it down."
Tice also refuted the notion that the Vikings offense has been more productive with Brad Johnson that it was when Culpepper was healthy and starting.
In the six full games that Culpepper played, the offense averaged 347 yards. In the four full games that Johnson has played, the offense is averaging 304 yards. The key, as pointed out many times over the last two weeks, has been the reduction in turnovers on offense and the increasing defensive turnovers.
"Going into last game we only had one touchdown in 11 quarters. So numbers-wise we actually have not (improved production)," Tice said. "We have been blessed to have some short fields because of the 15 turnovers that have been created by our defense in the last four week. The biggest thing is we have stopped the turnover bug. We actually had stopped that in the last couple games before Daunte went down with the injury. We had actually turned the corner on the turnover issue. Turnovers have been the biggest key."
BY THE NUMBERS: 265 yards - Yards for free safety Darren Sharper on interception returns this season, breaking cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock's team record of 242 yards set in 1998.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've done that already. If they don't think that they made the wrong decision, someone needs to take them to the clinic and check their heads." - Free safety Darren Sharper, who is tied for the NFL lead with seven interceptions, on whether he is still trying to show the Green Bay Packers they made a mistake by cutting him in an off-season salary-cap move.
Syndicated content was used for the notes section of this report.