In a month that began with high hopes of running the table and becoming what many expected a month in which the Vikings could go 4-0 or 3-1, they head into Sunday's matinee against the Arizona Cardinals a team desperate for a win. Off the heels of a four-game losing streak that includes losses to the 49ers, Packers and Dolphins – none of whom are above .500 despite showing improvement – the Cardinals may be just what the doctor ordered.
The Cardinals snapped an eight-game losing streak last week with a 17-10 win over Detroit – their first win since a season-opening 34-27 win over San Francisco. Of their eight losses in between wins, five of those have been by double digits and the team has struggled on both sides of the ball.
The biggest question swirling in Arizona is whether Dennis Green will be around after this season. Rumors have circulated that the team is already eyeing Steve Mariucci or Pete Carroll as a prospective new coach. If that's the case, Green will have set him up with an offense that could be one of the best in the league much sooner than later.
Green's young guns begin with quarterback Matt Leinart. A former Heisman Trophy winner, Leinart was viewed after the 2005 season concluded as being a top-five draft pick. Instead, he fell to No. 10, where Green quickly snapped him up. Many felt that Leinart would go the route of Daunte Culpepper – sit his rookie season behind veteran Kurt Warner and be ready to hit the ground in running in 2007. But, when the Cardinals season took a sharp downturn early and Warner looked like a target in the backfield, Leinart got the call. He has the type of roller coaster season one would expect from a rookie QB. His passer rating of 68.1 is the lowest of any starter in the NFL (and 13.8 points lower than what Warner was doing). He has completed 118 of 220 passes for 1,348 yards with six touchdowns and seven interceptions. He has successfully moved the ball at times, but has yet to show any consistency as a touchdown producer. Considering that teams are looking to attack the Vikings through the air, getting Leinart on the run is a priority.
The Cardinals running game also looks to be a matchup that would strongly favor the Vikings. There isn't any questioning the talent or the heart of Edgerrin James, but he has found that the additional money he received to leave the Colts hasn't translated into personal or team success. Only Larry Johnson of the Chiefs has more rushing attempts than James' 222 carries, but, heading into this weekend's games, James was 17th in the league in rushing with 680 yards – within 24 yards of Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick. James has averaged just 3.1 yards a carry and his longest run of the season is only 18 yards. While not all his fault – his offensive line is in shreds – facing the league's top rushing defense doesn't help a star having an off year. His value may be more as a receiver – he has 31 catches – but as a between-the-tackles runner, things don't look good as far as James being the runner who snaps the Vikings' 22-game string of not allowing a 100-yard rusher.
If Arizona opts to attack the Vikings defense with an aerial assault, it clearly have the horses to do it. Larry Fitzgerald has missed almost half of the season thusfar due to injuries, but he is back and, when healthy, is one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. He's joined by Anquan Boldin, who is fifth in the NFC with 55 receptions for 748 yards and three touchdowns. A wild card to the offense is third receiver Bryant Johnson. A former first-round pick, Johnson is the No. 3 receiver, but leads the team with an impressive 18.7-yard average. He is a deep threat that will likely be locked up with a nickel back or a safety, which could make him a player to keep an eye on. Former Viking Troy Walters also sees the field and, given his history with Minnesota, don't be shocked to see Green try to get him a chance for a deep ball or two. Because the Cardinals use so many three-receiver sets, the tight end has been effectively lost in the offense. Rookie Leonard Pope has worked his way into the starting lineup, but he's being used much more as a blocker and blitz protector than a receiver.
With all the talent at the skill positions, it's hard to imagine that the Cardinals offense is 15th in the NFC and 28th overall in the league. But, one look at the offensive line explains a lot of that. The Cardinals offensive line is a mess. The only quality NFL starter of the group is left tackle Leonard Davis and he's been far from dominant. Right tackle Reggie Wells is serviceable at best, and both he and center Nick Leckey are former sixth-round draft picks that wouldn't make a lot of rosters. At the guard, Deuce Latui is a rookie and Milford Brown is yet another former sixth-rounder who has found life under Green. While everyone but Davis has likely overachieved, their collective pedestrian talent has made former Viking Chris Liwienski a jack-of-all-trades – filling in at right tackle and both guard spots. The organization hasn't invested in this key position and it has showed.
The Cardinals were hoping their defense would help carry them to a playoff run this season, but the defense too has been a big disappointment. To add to the problems, perhaps their best defensive player – defensive end Bertrand Berry – was placed on injured reserve this week, depleting a line that already has plenty of problems. Unlike the offensive line, the Cards did invest in trying to improve the defensive front. Berry, eighth-year veteran DE Chike Okeafer and seventh-year DT Kendrick Clancy were brought in via free agency, and the other full-time starter – third-year defensive tackle Darnell Dockett – was taken on the third round of the 2004 draft. The results, however, have been mixed. Teams have averaged 119 yards rushing, a 4.1-yard average and scored 11 rushing TDs against the group. With Berry out, those numbers likely won't get much better against a hard-running Vikings team.
The linebackers crew is headed up by third-year man Carlos Dansby on the strong side. Strong against both the run and the pass, Dansby is a rising star and one of the few true playmakers in the Arizona defense. He's joined by middle linebacker Gerald Hayes and weakside ‘backer Orlando Huff. Hayes brings big hits, but often takes himself out of plays and bites too often on playfakes and misdirection. Huff has good overall skills, but doesn't excel and as a difference-maker in any aspect of the game. Look for the Vikings to pepper this group with short passes.
The secondary has talent, but haven't made enough big plays to turn games around consistently. The star of the defense is safety Adrian Wilson. While perhaps not known to casual fans, he is a tremendous blitzer – his four sacks are second on the team – and he leads the team in interceptions, including a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown. He's joined in the middle by former Viking Robert Griffith. While Griff has clearly lost a step, he still can deliver the knockout punch over the middle and in run support. On the outside, Antrel Rolle is a poor man's version of Antoine Winfield in run support, but hasn't been the same since undergoing extensive knee surgery last year. He can get beat over the top. On the other side, David Macklin is a seven-year veteran with good technique and cover skills, but doesn't have good make-up speed. Athletically speaking, second-year man Eric Green has superior cover skills, but he is raw and makes too many mistakes to be left on an island, so his role will be at nickel back covering slot receivers.
The biggest intangible Sunday might be Green himself. He's assembled a solid group of young playmakers and the team will have money to spend in free agency. The question is whether the team will pull the plug on Green. He would like nothing better than to come back to his old stomping grounds and continue the Vikings' slide. But, too many things point to the Cardinals being the team that makes the critical mistakes at crunch time to cost them the game. That being said, Green saved his job many times in Minnesota by preaching an "us vs. the world" mentality. Don't expect the Cardinals to go quietly – remember who it was who knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs the last time they met. To underestimate Green or the Cardinals could prove to be a fatal flaw.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
EDGERRIN JAMES VS. CHESTER TAYLOR - On the same week that the Minnesota Gophers football team accepted an invitation to the Insight Bowl, the featured running backs in Sunday's game may be candidates for the Hindsight Bowl – making Edgerrin James and Chester Taylor the Matchup to Watch this week.
With the life expectancy of starting running backs in the NFL being the lowest of any starting position, you couldn't blame James or Taylor for wanting the contract that could set their families up for life. In James' case, the Colts spent millions to lock up Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. There wasn't enough money to pay market value to James, who opted to go to the Cardinals for financial security. The same was true with Taylor, but in different respects. He had spent four years mired behind Brian Billick favorite Jamal Lewis and was ready to show the NFL what he could do as a full-time starter. The Vikings afforded him that opportunity, passing on the bigger contract demands of James to bring Taylor into the fold.
For both players, the expectations of team success haven't followed them. James' former team is 9-1, while Taylor's former teammates sit with an 8-2 record. The similarities in their fates have been comparable. Taylor has rushed the ball 221 times and is on pace to set a franchise record for most carries. James has done him one better – rushing 222 times. But neither has enjoyed the kind of success many had anticipated. Until last week, both had scored two touchdowns and were the league leaders in most rushing attempts for two yards or less.
Despite their up-and-down seasons, both the Vikings and Cardinals have leaned on them to be the backbone of the offense. In last week's win, James had a season-high 96 yards rushing. In the Vikings' four wins, Taylor has run the ball 20 times or more in each game and averaged 125 yards a game. There is no question that if James or Taylor has early success, they will be leaned on to carry the ball 25 to 30 times. To the extent one of them can out-do the other will go a long way to determining who wins Sunday, making this the Matchup To Watch.
Preview: Cards Possess Scattered Talent
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