The Minnesota Vikings' mission, should they choose to accept it, is to move into elite NFL company at the end of the season with the way they handle the running game on both sides of the ball.
The Vikings have the top-ranked rushing offense in the league and the top-ranked rushing defense. If they finish the season in the pole position in those two categories, they would become only the ninth team since 1970 to accomplish that feat.
In playful fashion, head coach Brad Childress was asked if his defense would stop his offense from rushing for 100 yards if they would play a game against each other. In playful fashion, Childress returned volley and said he'd sit on the fence on that issue.
"I think that you would probably be 50 percent on one side if you asked the defensive guys and 50 percent on the other side, Childress said. "I would probably get in the professional fence-riding mode again.
"What I would tell you is – and I learned this a long time ago – that if you practice against the run and a physical, hard-nosed running game, you have a tendency to be able to stand up and defend that. The two are kind of married. If you are playing against a fast-break basketball team all the time, five wides, nobody in the backfield, then when somebody lines up with two tight ends and decides to auger the ball at you and you haven't stood up to that and you don't have any idea of what that is like, it's harder to defend it. But I think we are good for each other. Now we have to be able to simulate the pass portion of it on both sides."
Last year, the Vikings led the league in rush defense and nearly set the league's modern-day record for yards yielded against the run, but a lackluster, season-ending performance against the St. Louis Rams, who piled up a season-high 168 yards rushing, ended the team's quest to be the best since the advent of the 16-game schedule. Instead, they had to settle for the No. 1 ranking in the league with 985 yards rushing allowed (61.6 yards per game).
Currently, the Vikings are allowing 74.8 yards per game and maintain their top-ranked rush defense, but they also have the lowest-ranked pass defense.
Safety Darren Sharper, known for his ball-hawking skills in the pass defense, said there isn't any jealously of the rush defense.
"No. We want to bring our pass defense up definitely. I am one that looks at the rankings for pass defense, just wanting to be part of a top-ranked pass defense," Sharper said. "We're going to get better, but it's hard because we're so dominating against the run. Those guys just destroy everybody we play against. Just from the sheer number of passes that we see, you're going to be toward the latter part. If we were tops in both, we wouldn't be sitting at 5-6 right now – I guarantee you that."
The offensive side of the ball could get a boost this week with the expected return of Adrian Peterson, who still leads the NFL in rushing with 1,081 yards despite missing more than the last two games with a knee injury. Pittsburgh's Willie Parker is Peterson's nearest competitor and trailing by 75 yards.
After "only" 127 yards rushing by the Vikings on Sunday against the New York Giants, Minnesota is hoping to improve that with the return of Peterson to at least a limited role.
"We saw a multitude of blitzes from their look. It wasn't one of our best days running the football. We need to improve there," Childress said, later adding, "I won't take anything away from the fact that we are the No. 1 rushing team in the National Football League. That just doesn't happen and I think it's just a matter of having good running backs, a very good offensive line, and you can't denigrate that. That's physical football and – you know what? – I would rather be building from that standpoint, trying to pick up the (pass) game and being No. 1 in something as opposed to we are 17th in this and we are 16th in that."
Interestingly, of the previous eight teams to have the top rushing offense and top rushing defense in the NFL, only the 1981 Detroit Lions failed to make the playoffs.
KICK IN THE SPECIAL TEAMS
Childress was quick to praise his special teams for their kick coverage, which now ranks third in the NFL and first in the NFC by holding opposing teams to an average starting position of the 24.1-yard line following kickoffs.
"There is a different intensity level there when those guys go down and cover the field. You say, well, you're supposed to not have any penalties, but I'm going to knock on wood and those guys have done a nice job in the special teams area, particularly in some of those return areas, of staying away from those penalties," Childress said. "You can see the importance of penalties, penalties such as kicking the ball out of bounds and being penalized, starting the first series at the 40-yard line."
In each of the last two games, the Vikings have had the opposition kick the ball out of bounds, resulting in the Vikings getting the ball at the 40-yard line.
Meanwhile, special teams ace Heath Farwell tied a franchise record with six special teams tackles against the Giants.
Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli spent a portion of his Monday press conference refuting reports that owner William Clay Ford told the coaches to have the ball thrown to rookie wide receiver Calvin Johnson more.
After being told that the source of those reports was unknown, Marinelli replied: "Well then, it's a lie. I'll call it a lie. I'm going to answer it. You may not like my answer. It's a lie. There are only two people that talk to Mr. Ford – Matt (Millen) and myself. Lie. I think that's clean."
Marinelli said he talks to Ford about every three weeks and did talk to him last week. Johnson was the second player selected in the 2007 NFL Draft and has 31 catches for 485 yards and four touchdowns despite playing through back problems this season.
Marinelli admitted that the Lions, who are on a three-game losing streak and face the Vikings at the Metrodome on Sunday, are struggling on offense.
"Yeah, we are. We're struggling some. It just really comes down to, as you look at it … it's a catch here, an execution here, a block here. … We're being aggressive as heck on it right now to get this group back on track, and I believe they will. I just really believe in them. We've just got to hit the details and bring it to our attention."
Marinelli also said the team did lose its focus over the last few games.
"Somehow, I think we did. It's my fault. I've got to teach it better," he said.
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