At full strength, defense holds much promise

The Vikings never had their full allotment of expected starters on the field at the same time last year. They still had a top-10 defense overall and the top run defense. The focus in the coming months will be on the offense, but the defense is the Vikings' staple to success.

Over the last couple of months, when fans and media types alike have been looking at the chances for the Vikings in 2009, much of the focus has been on the offense. With the drafting of Percy Harvin and Phil Loadholt and the potential signing of Brett Favre, the headlines have been dominated by the power potential of the Vikings offense.

But what has seemingly been lost in the shuffle is the fact that the Vikings already have one of the league's most dominant defenses and has the potential to get better. Although the offense could get a significant upgrade with the arrival of Favre and Harvin, the defense is what got the Vikings to the playoffs last year and will likely have just as big a role if the Vikes are to repeat as NFC North champs.

The Vikings had the sixth-ranked defense in the league last year, including the top run defense. At the same time, the team had the 17th ranked offense – almost by definition middle of the pack. What makes the Vikings defensive achievement so telling is that they did it without ever being at full strength.

The Vikings held opponents to 21 or fewer points in 10 games last year, including six of the last seven, but were never at full capacity when it came to the health of its players. Safety Madieu Williams, one of the team's notable free-agent signings, missed the first seven games of the season – forcing rookie Tyrell Johnson into the starting lineup from the beginning of the season. Linebacker E.J. Henderson played only four games in 2008 after being touted as a Pro Bowl candidate entering the season. It forced the Vikings to construct a patchwork linebacker corps that had guys like Ben Leber playing out of position often during games. Top that off with defensive end Jared Allen playing much of the season with a severely sprained shoulder and a knee injury.

To look at what the Vikings envisioned heading into the 2008 season, never having their projected starting 11 on the field at the same time for any game last year, what they were able to accomplish is nothing short of impressive. With Henderson expected back at full strength and Johnson returning the starting lineup as the replacement for Darren Sharper, the back seven of the defense looks as strong as it has been in years. The development of Chad Greenway has been steady, and Cedric Griffin has taken his place along Pro Bowler Antoine Winfield to give the Vikings a solid set of starting corners.

Amazingly, with all this talk of defense, there has been no mention made of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the Vikings Pro Bowl defensive tackles. Add their considerable talent to mix and a case can be made that the Vikings have a half dozen or more defensive players who could be Pro Bowl picks in 2009.

Let the media pounce on the Favre story and how much he could improve the Vikings offense. If Minnesota is heading to the Super Bowl following the 2009 season, it will be in large part due to the continued dominance of the defense, which has gone from one of the league's worst statistically speaking just a couple of years ago to one of the best. If they can hit on all cylinders at full strength, which they never had the chance to do last year, the Vikings could be the team to beat in the NFC in 2009.

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