NOTEBOOK: Third Downs the First Concern

The Vikings know the they need to convert more third downs when they have the lead, but they might not be willing to change their philosophy in order to accomplish it. See what the players and coach had to say about that issue and the running back rotation.

The Vikings are 6-0 since Brad Johnson took over as the starting quarterback when Daunte Culpepper blew out his knee in October. But the offense under Johnson is far from the well-oiled machine the undefeated record suggests.

Even the Vikings have confessed they know the winning streak was built on defense and special teams as much or more than on offense. Still, the record doesn't lie. The Vikings haven't lost since Johnson became the starter.

On offense, the biggest turnaround from Culpepper to Johnson has been in the turnover department. Through 6½ games, Culpepper had thrown 12 interceptions. In practically the same span, Johnson has thrown just two picks. During the six-game winning streak, the Vikings offense has turned the ball over only seven times. That, combined with the defense's plus-22 turnover ratio during the streak, naturally leads to wins.

Yet the offense knows it needs to do more if the Vikings have hopes of advancing to postseason.

"We're going to have to do something, carry our weight," tight end Jermaine Wiggins said. "Defensively, we're playing well, but there's going to come a point in time where, hey, we've got to do something as an offense to be more consistent, to go up there and just stay on the attack mode and help out a lot more than what we've been doing."

The Vikings' greatest nemesis is three-and-outs, and third downs, which often play in harmony together. Last week against the St. Louis Rams, the offense was the recipient of six turnovers caused by the Vikings defense. Yet, eight three-and-outs by the Vikings offense played a large role in why the game was still competitive in the fourth quarter.

"It did become an issue, but a lot of that came in the fourth quarter," Johnson said. "We were trying to run the clock out, we got away from throwing the ball. We were trying to manage the clock, get first downs and we had a turnover in there.

"Maybe we need to be a little more efficient with our fourth quarter offense a little bit. Maybe take some more shots, especially with the lead. The big thing is playing with the lead and not giving them a chance to have the short field."

To Johnson's dismay, it doesn't appear their fourth-quarter philosophy will change. When the Vikings have the lead in the fourth quarter, the clock — not the opponent — is the No. 1 concern.

"When you are ahead by two scores and playing good defense the only thing you are really competing against is the clock," head coach Mike Tice said. "You don't want to make any big mistakes. That is the style we have played with over the last six weeks and it has worked very well for us."

There is no significant difference in the third-down effectiveness of the Vikings with Culpepper or Johnson leading the way. Culpepper was 25-for-77 (32 percent) converting third downs when he was healthy and Johnson is 28-for-88 (31 percent) to date.

Running back Michael Bennett, whose fumble in the fourth quarter played a large role in keeping the Rams in last week's game, says the team's third-down woes are a simple matter of arithmetic.

"For the most part, we end up in third-and-long because of penalties and stuff like that," he said. "If you have a third-and-16 or a third-and-18, it's really hard to complete those. For a third- and-1 or a third-and-2 we've pretty much been successful at those."

The bottom line, Tice said, is that third-down conversions start on first down.

"There are some things you can do to keep that chain going," Tice said. "Winning first down in those situations, getting those 4 yards on those first-down situations helps tremendously because now you have two downs where you only have to make 6 or 7 yards."

RUNNING BACK ROTATION

  • Bennett appears to be the No. 1 back heading into the game Sunday against Pittsburgh. But that hardly means he will get most of the carries. A trend worth noting is that as soon as the Vikings appear to be settling with a No. 1 back, the other back — for injuries, and possibly other reasons — emerges.

    After 19 carries against the Giants last month, it appeared Bennett was reclaiming his top spot in the backfield. But then Mewelde Moore had 22 carries for 122 yards in a Monday night game against Green Bay. Moore's No. 1 role continued the following week against Cleveland. Then against Detroit, Bennett had 22 carries and last week he had 18 carries.

    Bennett was the leading rusher in the first two games of the winning streak, Moore was the leading rusher in the next two, and Bennett has been the leading rusher the last two weeks. The rotation apparently doesn't bother Bennett, who just six weeks ago was shopped around by the Vikings until they found no takers.

    "We're a very close-knit group," Bennett said. "The guys in our group are very unselfish. Whoever's getting the nod that week, we just back each other up with full support and if one guy comes out and the next guy goes in, we don't miss a beat. To have that kind of mentality, it helps us stick together."

    INJURIES

  • Linebacker Keith Newman, who has a sprained posterior cruciate ligament and is expected to miss two to four weeks, will be replaced by Raonall Smith. Napoleon Harris will also see some time in Newman's spot.

  • Punter Chris Kluwe is listed on the injury report as questionable. The Vikings are keeping veteran Darren Bennett on the roster as insurance, but Kluwe told Viking Update on Wednesday that he would be ready to go on Sunday against Pittsburgh.

  • Linebacker/special-teams ace Heath Farwell told VU his knee was fine Wednesday. He is listed as probable on the injury report. Moore (quadriceps), cornerback Fred Smoot (shoulder) and defensive tackle Kevin Williams (knee) are all listed as probable, and will play Sunday.

    "We have back Kevin Williams, the punter (Kluwe) and Heath Farwell, and this week we lose Keith Newman," Tice said. "We are plus two in the injury deal so that is an exciting thing."


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