In their season opener at Washington almost three weeks ago, the Vikings faced a hobbled Clinton Portis. In the second week they faced a mediocre DeShaun Foster and inexperienced DeAngelo Williams. Last week, the Vikings run defense focused on Thomas Jones. None of the aforementioned three are among the NFL's top 20 rushers this season.
While Portis, Foster and Jones present their share of problems for a defense, none of the three are off to the start that Willis McGahee is. McGahee, whom the Vikings face Sunday in Buffalo, is coming off a career-high 150-yard game last week (28-20 loss to the Jets) and is leading the NFL in rushing with 311 yards.
A combination of speed and might, McGahee will give the Vikings defense its strongest test yet.
"He's a tough runner," safety Dwight Smith said. "I have all the respect for him. He can run hard, he can run in between (the tackles), he can run outside, and stopping him will be the key to us winning."
Cornerback Fred Smoot said what makes McGahee a top-notch running back is his blend of brawn and beauty.
"He's a very talented running back and we have to stop him," Smoot said. "The thing about him is he's a good combination of speed, power and finesse."
After injuring his knee in his final college game at Miami in 2003, there was skepticism whether McGahee would ever be able to play in the NFL. Despite that, the Bills selected McGahee in the first round of the 2003 draft. After not playing in 2003, McGahee had a breakout season in 2004 with 1,128 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. Last year, McGahee rushed for 1,247 yards and five touchdowns.
McGahee considers himself a better runner now than he was three years ago before he blew out his knee.
"Oh yeah, no doubt about it," McGahee said. "I think I'm better than I was before. The injury kind of makes you sit down and look at yourself and evaluate yourself. I worked on little things as far as speed burst and other techniques."
It did not always appear to be that way, McGahee said. When he first went down with the injury during a bowl game, he wondered if his career might be over before it began on the professional level.
"I thought about it, but my doctor said everything was going to be all right so I just turned a negative into a positive and went from there," he said.
Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin joked when he was asked if this is the best runner his defense has seen yet.
"He is the best because we're playing him this week. That's kind of always the case in what we do," Tomlin said. "But no, he is a legitimate back. He is a known commodity and we respect him and we look forward to playing him."
McGahee Vikings' Stiffest Rushing Test Yet
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