Lurtsema's Reaction: Vikings Defense

Bob Lurtsema played defensive line in the NFL for 12 seasons, so what does he think of the Vikings' new-look defense after watching them practice? We take a unit-by-unit analysis with Lurtz. He feels comfortable with some units and is not so sure of others.

VU: What did you think of the changes in minicamp? Let's start with the defensive line.

With the defensive line, when I ask the players, ‘How are things going compared to last year,' I've never seen thumbs go up so fast in all my life. It was great to see. Erasmus James, I thought, was totally free as far as getting off the ball and being uninhibited. That's a compliment because when you get off quick and you're loosey-goosey, you're going to read on the run. Once you start doing that, that's a big step that you make in the NFL. A lot of times you'll hear that quote about a sophomore jinx. All they're talking about is a player that starts out good in his rookie year and he's starting to think too much coming into his sophomore year. He gets away from all of his God-given talents, and that's called the sophomore jinx. I think James got a little bit of a sophomore jinx in his freshman year and I think he's coming out right now, with the way he was moving and as smooth as he was, a little bit ahead of schedule.

Also, with (head coach) Brad Childress, he's got a little bit of Bud Grant in him with his conditioning program, which I totally love and support, making them come in in great shape. The drills that they ran after practice so that they wouldn't let their teammates down, I loved everything about it. As far as the defensive line goes, you've got Kevin Williams being the leader in the last sprint. After the way Kevin came in last year, I said, ‘This is it. This is going to be the Kevin Williams of two years ago.' That really got my attention as well.

Childress put it on the line. I know – not I think – I know for a fact that when players do not come in in shape, they do not worry about their conditioning, that athlete will not be there come crunch time. There were a lot of good athletes that Bud would cut that wouldn't produce come crunch time. You've got to have that endurance and you've got to be in shape to be the total package. Doing it 80 percent of the time doesn't do it these days – there is too much parity. If you look at any game and you switch two or three plays per game, it can turn the game totally around. I can't give enough kudos to Childress. I just loved that.

VU: How long do you think it will take Chad Greenway to establish himself as a starter? Do you think by the end of training camp he'll be able to do that or do you think they'll have to bring him along slowly during the season?

That's a question that only time will tell, and I hate that cliché. But at linebacker you would like the thought process, the reading and recognition of the offenses, motion, the changes in signal-calling – it depends a lot on how much responsibility they want to give Greenway coming out of the chute. Like Jeff Siemon – who is going into the College Football Hall of Fame and congratulations to him – was very, very astute as far as how fast he picked up the system. Not a lot of middle linebackers can do it that well. The thing that Greenway has going for him that will expediate his chances to start right away are his great work ethic and attitude. He's got what it takes to make it. Now let the coaches give it to him at different doses, whether it's 1 percent a day at practice or 3 percent – whatever percentage works the best to get him to 100 percent. Whether that takes six months or a year, that's what we'll find out.

VU: If he can be a starter on the weak side at the beginning of the season and E.J. Henderson would have a chance to go in the middle, if you're talking about E.J., Dontarrious Thomas and Napoleon Harris in the middle, who do you think would have the best chance of starting at middle linebacker then?

That's a big position to fill, but I think Napoleon Harris might have the edge because the linebacker coach, Fred Pagac, was the linebacker coach he had in Oakland. I would have to give Harris the nod because certain coaches know how to coach certain players. In my case, nine of my 12 years in the NFL were with Jack Patera. Jack knew me inside and out, and then I had Earl Leggett and he was an adjustment. He wasn't what Patera was to me. I think with this linebacker coach, Pagac, he knows the strengths and the weaknesses basically of what Napoleon can and cannot do. Once a coach knows what his players can and cannot do, that's one piece of your puzzle in going to the Super Bowl. There are some coaches that never get to a player to know and understand what he's seeing and why he is reacting to certain looks and certain formations. It's so important to know how to get the best results of who you're working with.

VU: Moving back to the secondary, do you have any concerns there or do you feel they have what they need to get the job done?

I still feel the defensive backs are the weakest of the 11. I don't worry about the defensive line or the linebackers at all. Back there (in the backfield), I saw such a roller-coaster last year that I'm still concerned. I would have loved to have a shutdown corner, as I mentioned earlier, in the draft. You've got a rookie coming in there with Cedric Griffin, but I don't see them shutting down receivers yet. Once you get to shutting down receivers, their defensive line, which is good now, especially with Kevin Williams in such great shape, that will make them that much better once you get that shutdown defensive back.

Where is Fred Smoot coming from? He talks a lot, but I haven't seen anything out of him. If he thinks he played well last year, he'd better look at the films. If he's saying it's because of the shoulder, well, everybody plays hurt. If you can't play hurt, take yourself out or something. I kind of liked Brian Williams and it will be interesting to see how they play defense with him being gone. I do like Antoine Winfield, though. He's confident in himself and knows the game so well that when he did criticize Coach Ted Cottrell last year, it was well-deserved and well thought out. Anybody that has played the game would be in total support of what he said and how he said it. We've got a strong 25 percent, and with Darren Sharper playing in a new system, we'll see how that goes. With (defensive coordinator) Mike Tomlin and that new Cover-2, that could play into the strengths of Sharper.

Bob Lurtsema was a 12-year veteran defensive lineman in the NFL, playing with the Baltimore Colts, New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks, and the longtime publisher of Viking Update. He joins for a weekly Q & A session, and his monthly column appears in the magazine.

Viking Update Top Stories