Upon Further Review

The Vikings defense made great strides over the last two months by figuring out what they were as a unit -- a team that would take away portions of the field and attack wherever the ball went. During their winning streak they rarely blitzed, instead using a pass rush and solid coverage to force the issue and force turnovers. But in Sunday's loss to the Ravens, their confidence in the inability of Kyle Boller and breaking from their own success formula cost them in a big way.

Teams are typically created around their talent. The Chicago Bears, for example, are a team built around a strong defense and a run-based offense by design and talent. The same is true on the other side of the coin with a team like the Kansas City Chiefs. With one of the most dominant run offenses in football, the team has been built around keeping the offense strong and building defense through the draft and free agency.

In this edition of Upon Further Review, we pose the question: What type of team are the Vikings? For years, you could clump the Vikings in with teams like the Chiefs and the Rams – teams capable of scoring 35 points, but defenses just as capable of allowing 35 or more. But, when Daunte Culpepper went down, the Vikings by design became more of a ball control team. Brad Johnson is a QB most comfortable throwing short timing passes. When the offense is in a rhythm, that results in 10-play drives that can eat six or seven minutes off the game clock. As a result, the Vikings took advantage of their strength on defense – speed and sound tackling.

While some teams like the Bears, Ravens and Eagles make their bread and butter with wild blitz packages that come from every direction, the Vikings during their winning streak abandoned wild rushing from the linebackers. Why? More times than not, they were picked up completely or chipped to the point they couldn't get to the quarterback. Instead, the Vikings went to a two-deep zone defense that forced teams to throw short passes. Heading into last Sunday's game, no team had allowed fewer passes of 16 yards or longer than the Vikings. That changed when they changed character.

Following Sunday's loss, coach Mike Tice said that the blitzes weren't indicative or what transformed the Vikings from one of the league's worst defenses at midseason into one that could more than holds its own against anybody. But, out of the feeling that pressuring Kyle Boller would do the trick, the Vikings exposed themselves twice – and got burned on both occasions. It cost them the game and a shot at the playoffs – not because the calls were wrong but because of what they left themselves with.

The Vikings have solid cover corners who, when called upon, can take on receivers one-on-one. Unfortunately, they weren't asked to do that on the two plays that burned them. Here is what they did.

SITUATION – Ravens ball, 3rd-and-7, Vikings 47-yard line, 9:58 remaining in the third quarter. There is a stoppage of play due to an injury to a Ravens lineman. Both teams have more than the usual amount of time to prepare for what they expect the other to throw at them. The Vikings call a blitz with four down linemen already in position. Cornerback Brian Williams and safety Corey Chavous come on a blitz. A crossing route by tight end Todd Heap freezes safety Darren Sharper for a moment, leaving Ralph Brown on an island with rookie Mark Clayton. The Ravens call a simple deep post route and Clayton drives into his cut – making a catch a near certainty if the ball comes on target. Boller throws the ball high and, in an attempt to get to the ball, Brown leaves his feet. Clayton plucks the ball, has Brown out of position and takes off for the end zone. Sharper, who had frozen for a moment to provide help if Heap didn't cut off his route, is out of position and has a bad angle on Clayton. He gets by Sharper and is gone for a 47-yard touchdown that erases a seven-point Vikings lead.

SITUATION -- Ravens ball, 3rd-and-8, Vikings 39-yard line, 14:54 remaining, fourth quarter. The Vikings answered the Clayton touchdown with a long drive that culminated in a Paul Edinger field goal to take a 20-17 lead. The Ravens have converted three straight third downs – two with passes and one with a roughing the passer call on Sharper, another ill-fated, ill-timed blitz – and face a fourth. This time, the Vikings are lined up with a three-man front and, with one linebacker occupied with Heap, the other three come on a blitz – as does a charging Brian Williams, who comes when he sees that RB Chester Taylor didn't get a handoff. Inexplicably, Sharper comes on a blitz from 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. Even though he has a free run into the backfield, Sharper is forced around left tackle Jonathon Ogden and comes nowhere near getting to Boller in time. That was problem one. Problem two was that, in a situation like that – one safety back for deep help – the corners are left alone with the receivers. Do you put Antoine Winfield on Mason? Nope. Fred Smoot? Nope. The Vikings put Dovonte Edwards one-on-one with the Ravens' most dangerous receiver. From the snap, Boller and Mason both know that will be the hot read on a blitz and it will require a double-move. Mason sells the route to perfection – making both Edwards and Chavous believe he's cutting his route off at the first down marker. Once Mason sees Edwards take a step forward he plants his left foot and takes off to the outside (the second, or double, move). Edwards and Chavous both try to recover, but it's futile. Even the underthrown Boller pass is easily caught for a touchdown – giving the Ravens a 24-20 lead they would never relinquish.

Following the game, Tice, defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and Winfield all said the two critical plays weren't in keeping with what the defense had done over the previous two months to be successful – and it cost them dearly. The new-look Vikings defense is based on penetration by the defensive line and zone responsibilities from the back seven. In the past, the Vikings tried some of the aggressive blitz packages that worked for Cottrell with the Bills and the Jets. But the problem in Minnesota was that the Vikings don't have the linebackers that can consistently and effectively blitz. Too often, they get caught up in the garbage at the line and take themselves out of plays. The Vikings tried to pick their spots and, Upon Further Review, their gambling not only cost them the game, but also their season.

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