A team with or without the Williamses

Defensive tackles Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms would likely start on Sunday if Pat and Kevin Williams can't play because of NFL-imposed suspensions, but the backups are taking a team approach that says they believe they can withstand the suspensions if they are upheld.

A day after the NFL brought down its hammer of justice on Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, imposing a four-game suspension on both that would take them away for the remainder of the playoff run if upheld, the Vikings returned to practice on Wednesday.

Later in the day, the Williamses won a temporary restraining order to be able to return to practice, but their status for Sunday's game was still in flux, depending on the league's ability to appeal the latest ruling in Hennepin County Court or even another hearing in the coming days that could decide on the NFL's power to impose these suspensions for violations of the league's policy on steroids and related substances.

While the focus of the team is on Detroit, those players who did venture into the locker room at Winter Park – from kickers to special teamers to backup offensive linemen – the same question was being asked. How do the Vikings survive – much less thrive – without the Williams Wall, if it does indeed come to that?

The focus turned quickly to Fred Evans and Ellis Wyms – two players that many of the same media questioners likely wouldn't recognize unless they were wearing their number or standing in front of the locker bearing their names. Two guys who have been able to walk through the media mine field essentially unnoticed for most of the season suddenly where in demand like movie stars on the red carpet.

Evans was besieged with questions about what losing two Pro Bowl tackles – not to mention Brian Robison, who was seeing action on third downs as a situational pass-rushing DT – would mean to the team. While it's a blow, for he and Wyms it is also an opportunity.

"Pat and Kevin are great defensive tackles and we will miss them," Evans said. "But at the same time, we have a great defensive line and great line coach in Karl Dunbar. We're just going to stay with what we do and keep it going."

The defensive line has been a very tight-knit group, which, to third-person outsiders, has thrived as a group since the arrival of defensive end Jared Allen. As much as the suspensions hurt the Vikings' chances of locking down the NFC North title, of which they currently hold sole possession, Wyms said it is just as painful for Pat and Kevin – who are acknowledged as team leaders on and off the field.

"I know how much those guys love this team and love what they do," Wyms said. "Obivously, it's going to be a difficult time for us. We have to go out and not have any drop-off on this defense."

It is clearly a rarity when two player of the stature of Pat and Kevin Williams are taken out of the lineup simultaneously, but Allen said that every player on the roster has to be able to contribute.

"We're in the National Football League – injuries are a part of it and things happen," Allen said. "Whoever is playing at that time has to play at the level of a starter. Our management has done a great job (to acquire) great personnel. We have a great team here. They wouldn't be here if we didn't think they could handle the job."

The focus of the media for the weeks leading up to Tuesday's official announcement of suspensions was that this day would be coming. The onus is being placed squarely on the shoulders of Evans and Wyms to hold their ground as the center of the defensive front, but, in reality, the onus is on everyone – defensively and offensively – to pick up the slack for the loss of two of their biggest stars.

"When the story first broke, you had it in the back of your mind that as some point we may not have those guys," Wyms said. "That's why we signed 53 guys. Those two guys are a huge part of what we do as a defense and what we do as a team. It's not going to be on just us (on the defensive line). It's going to be on everybody on this team to step up and do their job a little bit better, a little bit harder and everybody's got to be a little bit more detailed. We'll step up as a team and continue to do what we've been doing, keep winning and get in the playoffs."

The jump from being understudy to being headliners is the goal of every NFL backup. But in the demanding position of defensive tackle for the league's best run defense for the last three years, the ability to step in isn't viewed as being a professional challenge, rather a door opening for both players to prove their mettle.

"I'm very excited to help my team any way (I can), whether it be blocking a field goal or doing whatever," Evans said. "I'm excited to be able to play. I prepare the same way every week. I don't look at it as a challenge, I look at it as an opportunity to show that I can play football just as good as anyone else."

One of the biggest hurdles may be stamina. Both Evans have Wyms have been part of the Vikings' defensive line rotation, but each admitted to a typical game being limited to about 15 snaps. With the possibility of the Williamses being gone, that will likely increase to 40-50 snaps a game – a much more demanding workload, especially late in the game when they may well be exhausted. Both have experience and aren't novices to the game. Wyms started eight of the 13 games he played for Tampa Bay in 2006. Evans, who came to the Vikings last year after a year with Miami, has been seeing considerably more playing time as the season has progressed and said he's ready to make the jump to the starting lineup and feels no added pressure to step up on a more regular basis.

"I'm very comfortable," Evans said. "This is my second year here and I've been able to watch Pat and Kevin a lot. If you don't learn from them you're really wasting your time. I watch those guys, I learn and I try to emulate what they do. You watch and learn. You take what you learn from them and apply it to what you do."

The questions of how the Vikings defense will respond could begin Sunday when they face the winless Lions in Detroit. Already, the Detroit media has pointed at this game as perhaps the best chance the hapless Lions will have to win a game – based on the belief that the Vikings will suffer without the Williams Wall. When asked if he thinks the Lions will try to attack the middle with the running game, Wyms said Detroit will likely be the first of four teams looking at the transformation of the run defense from a strength to a weakness.

"Not just Detroit, everybody is going to challenge us," Wyms said. "Those guys are two Pro Bowl D-tackles that have been great in this league for awhile. Everybody's going to challenge us. We just have to step up and do what we do. What people are going to find is that it is not only just the players, it's the system we ran and the system we believe as a defense that it allows us to be good (defending) the run."

Are the Vikings dead in the water? The national media seems to think so, and a growing number of fans have of the same opinion in the Williamses aren't allowed to play in the final four games. However, in the Vikings locker room, the belief is that the team is greater than the sum of its part and, while far from ideal, the loss of the Pro Bowl tackles is a setback, not the death sentence many tend to believe.

"That's pretty much what everybody is going to think," Wyms said of the reports of the Vikings' demise. "But we know what we've got here. We've got a good team that is starting to hit our stride at the right time. We're not going to let this situation knock us off. We're going to keep doing what we've been doing. We think that's enough to get us in the playoffs and, once we get in the playoffs, we'll see where we go."


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