Notebook: Aggressive Style Fits Griffin

Cornerback Cedric Griffin will get the start if his ailing neck allows, as the Vikings find that mixing in more man coverage helps keep quarterbacks off-balance. Also, get notes and quotes on the defensive line, on Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald and Vikings WR Troy Williamson, along with Dennis Green talking about former Viking Robert Griffith.

Rookie cornerback Cedric Griffin has played in every Vikings game this year and started the last two, but it appears his role will continue to expand if his pain in the neck doesn't limit him.

Griffin's last two starts came because Fred Smoot wasn't recovered from the accidental death of his half-brother for the Vikings' Nov. 12 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Last week in Miami, Griffin, Smoot and Antoine Winfield all started, as the Vikings began the game with five defensive backs.

But this week Griffin will be in line for a larger role as the Vikings begin to incorporate a more aggressive style of play from their cornerbacks, which will leave Smoot to be the team's third cornerback and Griffin to be a starter from here on out in the team's base defense as long as a recurring neck injury doesn't keep him sidelined.

"A lot of the guys around here, we can play man, we can play zone, but I think (defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin) feels more comfortable for us to play man on third downs, and he's starting to go to it more and more often," Griffin said. "The more we've gotten comfortable with it, the more we've been playing it a lot more. It was successful against (the Dolphins)."

The Vikings struggled last Sunday on Miami's opening drive, when the Dolphins went no-huddle on five consecutive plays in the middle of that drive and quarterback Joey Harrington completed eight of nine passes before a fumble ended their drive near the goal line.

"I guess they were watching a little bit of film," Griffin said. "New England did a little of that and Green Bay came with the no-huddle and just tried to hit it real quick-like. Once we put the man on, a lot of that went away. This is the NFL. It's a copycat league, like people always say, so they're going to see that on film and they're going to try to execute that against us, but I think Mike T and our defensive coaches are well-prepared for that."

Griffin came into the league ballyhooed as a physical cornerback, and his rookie performance has backed that up. As the Vikings prepare to play more man-to-man defense and try to reroute receivers at the line of scrimmage, that style of play seems to fit Griffin's abilities.

"I think we got a more comfortable feeling that we can press these guys, and man-up, lock-up with these guys one-on-one," Griffin said. "I think a lot of guys like to play man and go out there for the challenge, and that sets up right for what we like to do."

The Arizona Cardinals might be especially challenging for the Vikings. While they have a rookie quarterback, they also possess three talented receivers, with the top two having star qualities.

Anquan Boldin has 17 career games in which he has 100 yards receiving or more, fourth-most in Cardinals franchise history. After just 50 games, Boldin had 314 receptions and reached 300 receptions quicker than any receiver in NFL history, and he was the third-fastest to reach 4,000 yards in his career, trailing only Randy Moss by one game and Lance Alworth by six games.

Larry Fitzgerald was a two-time all-state player at the Academy of Holy Angels in Minnesota, where he was a ball boy for Dennis Green and garnered receiving tips from Cris Carter and Moss. As a senior at Holy Angels, Fitzgerald had 73 catches for 1,254 yards and 17 touchdowns. He needs six receptions to reach 200 career catches in the NFL.

"Hopefully we can incorporate some man and some brackets and see if we can contain these guys, but I know they are a pretty good tandem," Griffin said. "You've got to switch it up. You can't go one thing all the time, so you've got to go man and zone and try to blitz a guy, just try to get him rattled, so I'm pretty sure we're going to have a variety of stuff to go out there with."

Griffin didn't play much in the second half last Sunday after he injured his neck (he had a recurrence of that injury in Friday's practice), which led to more playing time for undrafted rookie cornerback Charles Gordon, who was just promoted to the practice squad on Nov. 7.

But having two rookies in the secondary doesn't seem to bother other members of the defense.

"Obviously, Ced has been playing great and Chuck Gordon got an opportunity to show what he's capable of and did a good job out there being thrown into the fire. We feel comfortable as a defense that we can throw anybody out there," said linebacker Ben Leber, who added that Gordon doesn't get a lot of practice time with the first-team defense during the week. "He's been definitely showing it in the weeks prior on the practice squad. That's obviously why he's turned a lot of heads – he's on that squad and still showing up and doing some good things. We've all been impressed with him, even in training camp. I just hope he keeps it up."

Leber said the Vikings' switch to playing more man defense against Miami helped slow down Harrington after a hot start.

"I had a chance to talk to Joey after the game a little bit and he was wondering what we did adjustment-wise because I think from their offensive standpoint, we kind of confused them a little bit. He really didn't know what adjustment we made," Leber said. "We didn't really make a major adjustment, we just kept everything a little more pure and gave him a little more man here and there and disguised a little bit better and that threw him off a little bit."

That man pressure at the line of scrimmage could be a strategy the Vikings employ more, but Griffin said they still have to use a variety of coverages to keep quarterbacks guessing.

"You never know with Mike T. He's a great defensive coordinator so he might put in the two, three or the man or the zone dog, so you never know what's going to happen," Griffin said. "I'm just going to come to practice and practice whatever he gives us."

OPPORTUNISTIC WEEKEND

Like the Vikings, the Cardinals have struggled to protect their quarterback. They rank 20th in the league in sacks per pass play, and their offensive line has been receiving the brunt of the blame.

So, naturally, observers assume Sunday might present some opportunities for the Vikings' defensive line to get some sacks, but …

"We looked at the last four weeks and thought of that," said defensive tackle Kevin Williams. "We got really good opportunities and we still came home with a loss, so we're just going to prepare like we normally do and just go out and try to get a win."

Defensive end Darrion Scott agreed that the Vikings can't afford to look past any opponent, even if it is the 2-8 Cardinals.

"For us, we can't look at it like that because we lost to some teams that we shouldn't have lost to, and I'm sure everybody around here feels like that," Scott said.

Asked if the Vikings need to win out to make the playoffs, Scott said: "I don't know, but I think that's what we need to do. We're 4-6 right now, so we need these games. I'm sure everybody around here is aware of that."

LEARNING FROM THE BEST

Former Vikings ball boy Larry Fitzgerald Jr. got a chance to hone his wide receiver skills while working next to some of the best talent in the country. As a ball boy, he picked up tips and tricks of the trade from former Vikings Cris Carter and Randy Moss back when Dennis Green was coaching the Vikings.

"Well, I think the thing (Moss and Carter) had in common was their heart and the way they loved to win and the way they competed every week. Those guys never once let anybody get one up on them. They were always trying to compete to the best of their ability so they could be the best," Fitzgerald said.

But, when asked by his father, Larry Sr., a columnist for the Minneapolis Spokesman, who he was closest to in ability, the respectful and reverent Fitz Jr. said: "I can't even mention myself in the same breath as those guys. Those are two future Hall of Famers and maybe when we play the Vikings – what will it be, three years from now back up in the Metrodome again? – you guys can ask me then and I might be able to answer that for you."

The Fitzgeralds had a close relationship with Green, as Larry Sr. hosted a radio show on which Green made regular appearances. Although Green tried to downplay the meaning of his return trip to the Metrodome other than it being significant to win a regular-season game, Larry Jr. said this game means a little more than that to Green.

"I just know he's one of the fiercest competitors I've ever met," Larry Jr. said. "He wants to be the first one to win the ballgame; he wants to be the first one in the line to get his picture taken. He's a competitive guy like that, and he wants to win. I know this game is important. He probably won't say it or let it be known, but I know he wants to go back and win this game really bad."

PRESSURES TO PERFORM

Fitzgerald was a first-round pick of the Cardinals, just as Troy Williamson was for the Vikings. However, Fitzgerald came into the league as a polished receiver known for great hands and body control.

Williamson came into the league known as a raw speedster.

But both were high draft picks, but Fitzgerald said Williamson actually came into a better situation, although Fitzgerald has far outperformed Williamson to this point.

"There's a whole lot of pressure when you come in as a high-round pick, but Troy definitely had the luxury of going to a team that was already established," Fitzgerald said. "They had Daunte Culpepper, a guy that was coming off an MVP-caliber season and threw for record numbers. They had running backs like Michael Bennett and Onterrio Smith. There were a lot of guys around him that were really good football players and they had been winning.

"The situation I came into was a lot different. They thrust me into the field and threw me in the fire right away, and there was not a very good winning tradition here and it was something we had to work on. So I knew when I stepped out there I had to be ready and it was going to be all eyes on me. I knew what to expect, so I think Troy was lucky to go into the situation he had."

Vikings quarterback Brad Johnson joked that Fitzgerald had an advantage as well, with Johnson and other Vikings quarterbacks sometimes throwing balls to what was then a young high school receiver at the Academy of Holy Angels in the Twin Cities.

"When he started getting mentioned for the Heisman in college (at Pittsburgh) and stuff, you know, I started to try to take credit for some of those throws," Johnson joked, before turning back credit to Fitzgerald. "He has done it all on his own. A very powerful person and has worked hard. It's pretty neat to see someone come that far anyways, let alone what he's done and the way he's done it."

FAMILIAR FACES

Green has several former Vikings coaching and playing under him, but the only former Viking playing on defense is safety Robert Griffith. Griffith may be aging in NFL terms, but he's able to deliver a hit, just like he became known for as a Viking in the late 1990s.

"Griff is still playing well," Green said. "I think that he's one of the older players in the game, but he loves the game. He came back here after playing some years in Cleveland. He's the All-American success story, a guy that did not even get invited to the combine. He signed with the Minnesota Vikings way back when. He worked his way from being a special teams phenom to a starting safety. He's gone to the Pro Bowl, signed a couple of good contracts, including one to Cleveland and then back here. He can still cover some good territory. He patrols the middle.

"Not a lot of guys want to come and catch balls over the middle. When they do, they know that he is a good, clean, hard hitter."



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