Put Up or Shut Down for Vikings

The Vikings' struggling offense will need a better performance than it showed last week, and this week brings the second of three straight top-10 defenses. This could be a win or they're done game by the time they kick off.

Presented with a terrific opportunity to prove their second-half turnaround was no fluke, the Vikings fell flat in last Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh.

Behind the ineptitude of an offense that could not overcome a top-notch defense, Minnesota's six-game winning streak came to a sudden halt with an 18-3 loss at the Metrodome. That sets up Sunday's game against another tough defense in much tougher conditions.

The Vikings will visit Baltimore on Christmas Night, playing in front of a hostile crowd in cold weather. The Ravens, coming off the high of a 48-3 victory over Green Bay on Monday night, will get another chance to prove to a national television audience that they are better than their 5-9 record.

Throw in the fact that embattled coach Brian Billick is the Vikings' former offensive coordinator and there appears to be plenty of incentive for Baltimore not to have a letdown.

Baltimore's defense is ranked sixth in the NFL, placing it only one spot behind Pittsburgh, and putting it in a favorable position against the Vikings' 26th-ranked offense.

Minnesota will have to find a way to create points or its Jan. 1 regular-season finale against Chicago at the Metrodome - a game moved to 3:15 p.m. to accommodate a bigger audience for Fox - could mean nothing.

Among the areas the Vikings will focus on in practice this week is the red-zone offense and third-down conversions.

In the past two games, the Vikings are a dismal 5-for-24 on third down. They rank near the bottom of the league in this category. As far as red-zone ineptitude, Minnesota only got three points out of four trips inside the Pittsburgh 20-yard line. The other three possessions ended with two interceptions and a blocked field goal.

That leads to another area that will need improvement. Special teams had been a strength for much of this season but certainly wasn't against the Steelers. In addition to the blocked field goal, the Vikings also fumbled away a kick and gave up a 72-yard punt return to Antwaan Randle El.

"We've got to bounce back, and play smart on special teams," coach Mike Tice said. "We've got to bounce back and find a way to score some points, especially in the red zone.

"You go down to the red zone four times and come away with a field goal ... like I told (offensive coordinator Steve) Loney, ‘I don't know if we could beat Iowa State doing that.' We've got to do a better job down there. It's really where our problems have been all season, not converting on third down and doing a poor job in the red zone."

If those problems continue, the Vikings' worries about this season might be finished.

NOTES

The Vikings' offensive line could see more changes Sunday, but these would be the result of injuries and not performance. Right tackle Marcus Johnson and center Melvin Fowler are both nursing ankle injuries suffered in the loss to Pittsburgh.

It appears Johnson's sprained right ankle will keep him out, meaning veteran Mike Rosenthal would get his job back. Rosenthal started the first 10 games of the season before being replaced by the rookie.

Fowler, who has a sprained left ankle, also could sit. Cory Withrow, the starter at the beginning of the season, would serve as his replacement.

Meanwhile, Michael Bennett has taken over as the Vikings' top running back despite the fact that Mewelde Moore remains atop the depth chart. Bennett had 11 carries against the Steelers, giving him 51 in the past three games. Moore, battling a variety of injuries, has three carries in that time.

On defense, it appears that Brian Williams will continue to start at right corner and Fred Smoot will remain in the nickel back role. Smoot, who has played the nickel the past two games since returning from a fractured right collarbone, said he could not handle the snaps required from a starter. Smoot admitted this week that he wasn't supposed to have returned to practice until this past Monday.

Veteran Ralph Brown appears to have held off a challenge from rookie Dovonte Edwards for the dime spot.

  • TE Jermaine Wiggins sat out Wednesday's practice because of a sprained left ankle and is listed as questionable.

  • SS Corey Chavous (ankle) was a surprise addition to the injury report and sat out Wednesday's practice. He is listed as probable.

  • P Chris Kluwe showed enough in his return Sunday against the Steelers that the Vikings released veteran Darren Bennett. Bennett was signed to punt for one game after Kluwe suffered an injury to his right (punting) knee on Dec. 4 at Detroit.

  • LB Keith Newman will miss a second consecutive game because of a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Raonall Smith will continue to start in Newman's place on the strong side.

  • LB Heath Farwell, who plays on all the Vikings' special teams, should be able to return after missing two games because of a sprained left knee.

  • WR Chris Jones was promoted from the practice squad. Former University of Minnesota LB Phil Archer was signed to the practice squad.

    BY THE NUMBERS: 1993 - The last time the Vikings' defense finished a season ranked higher than the offense. The defense is currently ranked 24th in the NFL and the offense is 26th.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm sure he's down. He signed a nice little deal to come here and he's not starting right now. I don't know if he's 100 percent healthy or whatever. It's been a pretty up-and-down season for him. He's not used to it. But he's a pro and he'll definitely come back next year and do his thing." - Antoine Winfield on fellow cornerback Fred Smoot, who has spent the past two games as the Vikings' nickel back. Smoot returned after missing four games because of a fractured right collarbone.

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