Defenders focus on QB, RB

The Vikings have faced a lot of good quarterback-running back combinations this season, but Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook might be the most versatile combination in that department. Several Vikings defenders talked about the keys to taking them out of their game.

Over the course of the 2008 season, the Vikings defense has faced several good quarterbacks and running backs. But perhaps none are as linked at the hip as Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook. The Eagles offense is centered almost exclusively around Westbrook. Despite missing some time due to injuries, Westbrook had 233 carries for 936 yards, caught 54 passes for 402 yards and scored 14 touchdowns – nobody else on the team had more than four.

As the Eagles come in to the Metrodome to meet the Vikings in the NFC playoffs, perhaps nobody will draw more attention than Westbrook will by the Vikings defense. The reason is quite simple. He's not just a running back, he's a slot receiver, a wide receiver and an H-back rolled into one.

Before coming to the Vikings, Ben Leber played with LaDainian Tomlinson, one of the all-time greats used extensively as a receiver as well as a go-to running back. But even L.T. wasn't utilized in the ways Philadelphia uses Westbrook.

"They want to hurt you more with mismatches on the ends," Leber said. "Their M.O. is more to pass first and run second. They use Westbrook a lot of different ways. He can line up in the eye. He'll line up next to McNabb in the shotgun. He'll line up in the slot. He'll line up on the outside as a wide receiver. They find ways to move him around the field and try to find mismatches."

As a result, he is going to be the key in most everything the Vikings plan to do defensively. If Westbrook goes in motion, expect to see at least a couple of Vikings players move as well. The Eagles don't disguise their plans when it comes to Westbrook. They find ways to get him the ball, whether it be handing it to him or pitching it to him in the passing game.

"He's pretty special as far as what he can do both as a runner and a receiver," Leber said. "He's definitely our primary concern on defense. He's their team MVP and we have to try to shut him down and make them use other players to try to move the ball on us."

He is so critical to the Eagles offense that he commands the attention of the defensive ends as well as the linebackers and safeties. If a pass rusher sees Westbrook sliding out into the flat to take a screen, many times they will break off their pass rush to make sure someone is covering him. The Vikings will be no exception.

"The big thing we have to look for are screens and draws," said defensive end Brian Robison, who will start in place of Ray Edwards Sunday. "They like to get him out in the flat and catch screens. He's shown this year how many times he has done that and hurt teams. You have to keep an eye on him even when you're rushing the passer."

In many ways, the attention that will be paid to Westbrook is similar to what opposing defenses do to game plan against Adrian Peterson. While their running styles are very different, both are home run hitters that can create the big play that turns a game around and Westbrook has the respect of the Vikings defenders whose job it will be to contain him.

"He's a very different runner than Adrian, but they have some similarities," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Opposing defenses focus on both of them coming into a game and they both have a habit of making the big play and taking a run to the house. Those are the most dangerous type of running backs there are. You can keep him under control for a long time and then – bam! – he breaks off a 60-yarder and scores a touchdown."

Stopping Westbrook will be the top priority, but not the only one. McNabb is one of the streakier quarterbacks in the league and, like Brett Favre, can look like a world-beater one game and a high school quarterback the next. But, when he is on his game, there are few quarterbacks better than McNabb. He likes to take deep drops instead of zing short passes, which has been the standing rule for many offenses trying to avoid the Vikings pass rush. Most quarterbacks have employed three-step drops and timing passes. McNabb isn't one of those quarterbacks, so forcing him to abandon the deep drops will also be on the top of the Vikings' defensive checklist.

"He's been around the league a long time," Leber said. "He knows what to look for and how to find his hot read. What we have to do is get in his face quickly and force him to make decisions without the benefit of having a lot of time to make his reads. When you pressure him and get him moving, he is a different quarterback."

The onus of making that happen will fall on the defensive front and, most likely, right end Jared Allen. He led the Vikings with 14.5 sacks this season and had several more near-misses in which he slammed opposing quarterbacks to the turf. He said that if McNabb insists on doing the five- or seven-step drops, it will be his job to make sure he pays for it.

"If you give a quarterback time to set up and be effective, most good quarterbacks will and McNabb has been doing this for some time now," Allen said. "He's been productive. If you disrupt their timing and get them to run when we want them to run and throw when we want them to throw, he will be more focused on us."

Over the years, McNabb has struggled against hard-charging pass rushers and at times can look brutal. Five times this year, the Eagles scored 37 or more points in a game. But in their last two losses – both on the road – they scored seven and three points, respectively. When pressured, McNabb will get rid of the ball and struggle offensively. The Vikings know they need to rattle him early in order to get in his head.

"We can't let him get comfortable," Greenway said. "He likes to take those five- and seven-step drops and let plays develop. That requires time. We can't let him have the kind of time he needs to succeed. We have to put pressure on him to get rid of the ball quickly. That's how you create turnovers – if he and his receivers are just a little off with their timing. If he gets too much time in the backfield, he can pick a defense apart. We can't allow that to happen."

The oddsmakers in Las Vegas have made the Eagles a three-point favorite, due largely to the experience players like McNabb, Westbrook and head coach Andy Reid have had on the national stage in January playoff games. The last time the Vikings went to the playoffs, their 2004 season ended with a loss to the Eagles. Artis Hicks, who was on that Eagles team, said he's reminding some of his teammates that the Eagles are going to be fired up for this game. They're accustomed to the postseason. They won't have any jitters. And the Vikings will have to raise their level of play to match the Eagles' intensity and experience.

"One thing I've told some of the guys heading into this game is that you have to expect a dog fight," Hicks said. "They've always played hard and physical, but when it gets to be playoff time, Coach Reid and guys like Brian Dawkins and Donovan and Jon Runyan are revving those guys up, because you have to take it to another level. When it comes to the playoffs, it's all about momentum. The harder you play, the more momentum you build. You have to come out fast against a team like that."

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