The Vikings have led the league in run defense each of the last three years and it has been their calling card – routinely forcing opponents to all but abandon the run because of a lack of success and making them one-dimensional and pass-happy.
That hasn't been the case this season. The Vikings have allowed 218 yards on the ground on 54 attempts, slightly better than four yards a carry and about a yard better than teams have averaged in the past couple of seasons.
What is the most troubling about those numbers is that Cleveland and Detroit – the Vikings' first two opponents of the 2009 season – were among the worst rushing teams in the league in 2008. When people scratch their heads as to why the Vikings have been getting off to slow starts in games, perhaps nothing answers that question more than what they've done against the run.
"I'm not going to denigrate any of the running backs. Kevin Smith is a very good running back. You're usually going to see a pretty good runner every week, and sometimes you're going to see two pretty good runners," Vikings coach Brad Childress said Monday. "You have to take care of your gap-integrity defense, you have to take care of your gap, and people are counting on you taking care of your gap. Typically, when you see those things crease somebody hasn't done that."
Ask any defensive player about a given team, whether it's a run-centric team like the Ravens or a pass-crazy offense like the Cardinals, and you will hear the same thing – the first goal is to stop the run first. The Vikings haven't been able to do that consistently and both opponents have been able to exploit that to some degree.
"I thought their physicality was better than ours as we started the game; and I would tell you on both sides," Childress said.
What makes it even more surprising (or troubling) is that the first two opponents came in with extremely inexperienced quarterbacks. Brady Quinn was making just his fourth NFL start and Matthew Stafford was starting just his second game. Both teams were looking to take the pressure off their young QBs by running the ball, which would have seemed to play to the Vikings' strength. Instead, it took a pair of second-half comebacks to get the Vikings off to a 2-0 start.
With the 49ers coming in Sunday, it may not get any better. Mike Singletary has said he wants to develop a power running game to pace the offense and Frank Gore is coming off a monster performance in which he had touchdown runs of 80 and 78 yards against Seattle.
"Against a good runner, against a team that emphasizes what (the 49ers) emphasize and their level of physical toughness, you'd better be about your business … because I'll tell you, they're not going to come in here with what some people do and say, ‘Well, geez, we're just not going to be able to run the football.' They're going to try to exert their will physically on you running the football. They're going to do that," Childress said.
At 2-0, there are a lot of things for fans to be pleased with about the Vikings. But their killer run defense isn't one of them.