The Vikings were a preseason darling to be one of the best teams in the NFL. Now they are scratching to make it to the playoffs largely because of an offense that hasn't been able to score enough points.
The Ravens are an incredible testament to player personnel in their linebackers and defensive backs, but they are 5-9 largely because of an offense that hasn't been able to score enough points.
And we thought defense won championships.
Turns out, offense and special teams are needed, too, and that's where the Vikings have to start Sunday night in Baltimore – by scoring points on offense even if they are facing the league's sixth-ranked defense.
"They want to confuse you and they've got so many athletes in the back end as far as DBs (defensive backs)," Vikings guard Anthony Herrera said. "They can play with four down linemen and sometimes they play with four backers, and they can play all that because they've got great athletes in the back end."
It is an impressive display of personnel – a mix of past-their-"Prime Time" players and prime-cut playmakers.
The linebacker corps took a major hit when Ray Lewis was lost for the rest of the season with a thigh injury, but Terrell Suggs is becoming one of the best playmakers at the position.
"I want the world to remember that I was here," Suggs says. "That is very important to me. We will never forget L.T., Derrick Thomas or Reggie White. They will always be a part of the NFL and its history. I don't just want to be an average football player in this league. I want to be dominant, and I think I am in the best position to do that right now. The sky is the limit on how good I can be."
Add Adalius Thomas and Tommy Polley to the mix at linebacker, and speed is deadly to a timid offense. Thomas is so versatile that he has been used as a defensive tackle, defensive end, linebacker and safety while the defense has trudged through a host of injuries.
In the defensive backfield are great names of the past hanging onto their careers with nickel and dime cornerbacks Deion Sanders and Dale Carter, and top-of-the-line cornerbacks Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister. And then there is safety Ed Reed, one of a number of Ravens that Vikings coach Mike Tice referred to Wednesday as the best in the game at his position.
"I would have to say, if we were healthy, we would be the best (secondary)," Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister said. "If we had every man in our secondary available, we would be the number one secondary, bar none."
Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson agrees with McAlister's self-praise.
"They have been hitting on all cylinders all season long. Some of the secondary guys, you look at their careers and their bios, they look like the dream team. They made some great moves in the offseason," Johnson said. "They do some unique things on defense to put those guys in position to make plays. They play extremely well together."
The back-end talent allows an aggressive approach in the front end, according to Herrera.
"Basically, they're a defense that if you want to run the ball, they're going to put you in bad situations. They're going to force you to pass. They're very, very aggressive – fast. They've got a great defensive coordinator out there," Herrera said.
"They've got (Peter) Boulware, they've got Suggs. I don't think Boulware is starting anymore, but he's a great athlete. They've got guys on the defensive line, Anthony Weaver. They've just got guys that play their role very, very well."
The Vikings have wanted to run the ball, but they haven't found a great deal of success. Only once in the last six games have the Vikings had a running back with more than three carries average 4 yards per rush. It's been a struggle, and figures to be a struggle facing the sixth- and first-ranked defenses to end the regular season.
The lack of running success might be why the Vikings failed to score a touchdown in their four trips inside Pittsburgh's 20-yard line last Sunday.
"You can make any excuse you want to, but you've got to finish. We had the ball with four possessions in the red zone and we should have come away with points on all of them, but we didn't," Herrera said.
Baltimore's stingy defense will be another formidable test for the Vikings' young, ever-changing offensive line. Only left tackle Bryant McKinnie has started every game, and is the only offensive lineman to have started more than 10 games.
Still, Herrera says jelling as an offensive line isn't the issue.
"Not for me. We just didn't get it done. … I think if each man takes care of his job, then the offense will go. I'm still learning. I've got a few awareness issues. Nothing major, but football is all about the details. I'm learning that, I'm learning how to study and it's all on the run," he said. "It's getting better. Every game I'm more and more comfortable."
Or as comfortable as he could be preparing to face another strong defense from the AFC North.
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