Lurtsema's Reaction: LBs, DL, Running Game

Former Viking Bob Lurtsema gives his candid opinions on the good and the bad from the Vikings' three preseason performances as they get ready for their final tune-up before the games really count.

VU: What were your general impressions of the Baltimore game?

You know, the defense is for real. I'm totally impressed with that defensive line and the great job that Karl Dunbar has done with that group. They feel very comfortable and you can tell in the locker room, you can see it in their eyes – the excitement. With excitement comes the feeling of dominance, and they really felt that they dominated and can dominate the entire season. That was exciting.

I'm still a little worried about the linebackers, especially the middle linebacker. Every great defense, you always hear about the middle linebacker and the great defense, from Sam Huff to Dick Butkus to Ray Nitschke to Brian Urlacher now with the Bears and Zach Thomas now in Miami. Every great defense now starts with a good, strong middle linebacker. But, in the same breath, that middle linebacker, I know when we played with Jeff Siemon, who was a Pro Bowler all those years, and Lonnie Warwick, how tough he was, the defensive linemen would take out the interference and give your middle linebacker a clear shot. With the line playing as well as they are, it really should make that middle linebacker a better player. But then who's the leading tackler – my little boy Heath Farwell. He does it with all the heart and all the guts and the commitment. There's a guy who, if there's such a thing as a Triple-A grade, he deserves it. His attitude pretty much is the attitude of all the great middle linebackers, only he hasn't got the size of a Butkus or a Nitschske.

VU: When you talk about all the great middle linebackers of the past and even in the present, the only one that I can think of that is similar to this scheme that has a great middle linebacker is Chicago. It makes me wonder if you really need that Pro Bowl type of middle linebacker for what they're asking him to do in this defense.

Well, you've got to stop the run. You can have all the speed in the world, and what they're trying to do is have linebackers that have tremendous speed. With what they have, I think the Tampa-2 is perfect for the weak- and strong-side linebackers – they can fly. Now, if you've got your defensive linemen in the middle doing what they're supposed to be doing, especially with the Williamses – they're annihilating it in there – you're middle linebacker should stand out. They say, sure, everybody's got their coverage and they're backing off, but if they get their job done, the middle linebacker has got to stuff it, and then if the back bounces out you've got your great pursuit from speedy outside linebackers.

VU: When you talk about the defensive line and all the potential they have, if they would reach their potential, how good do you think they could be in comparison to the great lines the Vikings have had in the past?

If you're trying to compare them to the Purple People Eaters, you're looking at a preseason three-game schedule. It's fun to get excited in the preseason, but you cannot take that – you've got three No. 1 draft choices and Pat Williams – and what the Purple People Eaters did over the years and the Fearsome Foursome, you can't do it. You can't compare it. You can give them the "potential" tag over and over and over again, but until they've lived up to a whole season playing together and being in the top two or three defenses, then let's start talking. I do like their speed and I like their attitude.

VU: Do you have concerns about what the first-team offense has been able to do as far as scoring actual touchdowns versus field goals? They seem to drive the ball pretty well, but they don't seem to score a lot of touchdowns.

They don't really seem to drive the ball. I think you've got Brad Johnson and that's where it stops. Brad Johnson is a brilliant quarterback, and you talk to other quarterbacks that know what's going on and how to read, etc., he's a brilliant quarterback. That's all they have right now. Troy Williamson is improving a little bit. The running game – they say it's only preseason and they're trying to come together, they're still working with each other and trying to get a feel for each other – that's true, but they're using that as a crutch. When they played bad, that's the crutch they throw out, but on a straight running game, it's one-on-one. I don't see this offensive line rooting anybody out. There have been no gaping holes this year. That's something that is basic football. When they start to do something West Coast, where they have to hook inside-out or outside-in for the guards, it seems like I see them tripping over each other. I can see them making mistakes. I can see the back not getting a feel that Steve Hutchinson might be a lineman that's always going to turn from the inside out or whatever – he's going to have a habit that they can pick up on. That's a different approach, but right now they're not rooting anybody out.

Even with Artis Hicks, I watch him and he's not relaxed there. Matt Birk's been out a year, and you don't just sit out a year and come back and get your same form that you had two years ago. That's why so many ballplayers, coaches won't let them back after they've been hurt for a year late in their career. They know it takes too long to recover and it's too much time off. In the case of Hicks, like myself, I could play all four positions on the defensive line, but my No. 1 position was right tackle – I loved everything about it. My worst was left tackle. Of all the positions I played, I did not like that. With Hicks moving from the left side to the right side, maybe he's in the same position I was in. Maybe he's a natural and loved everything on the left side, but has a little more difficulty on the right side. It can happen – there's a huge difference between the left side and the right side, whether it's an offensive guard or tackle or a defensive tackle or end. People might not believe it, but, trust me, you're looking at it entirely different. With a right-hand stance, you take your first step and it's easy to read outside-in. On the left side, when you take that first step, you switch your stance.

VU: So do you think the problems with the running game are almost all with the offensive line and not so much with the running backs?

No. They haven't got any backs either. You've got a combination there. One makes the other. The backs, the good ones, they'll say their line does it – they know it's the line. But who's a great running back that the Vikings have right now? I'm a Mewelde Moore fan and everybody is saying that he's so fragile. But I think if he's healthy, he's your home run hitter. Give me Mewelde, a healthy Mewelde.

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.

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