Sunday slant: Defensive frustration?

The Vikings haven't played up to their potential defensively and it's starting to get some of the defenders frustrated. Brad Childress talked about the keys to turning that around. Plus, the Vikings are in the middle of a two-game stretch facing a couple of the best safeties around. See what the coaches and players had to say, along with our look at what's going well and what needs to improve.

For longtime fans of the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers, Sunday's game will look nothing like the Purple People Eaters on one defense and the Steel Curtain on the other.

Right now, the Vikings defense is just trying to get back to fundamentals after a frustrating statistical start. At 6-0, it's hard to get down on the Vikings about too much, but their fourth-quarter letdown against the Baltimore Ravens screamed one thing – their record might be perfect, but they have plenty of flaws to fix.

That starts on defense, the unit that powered the Vikings to the playoffs last year and set a modern-day NFL record with three straight seasons leading the league in rushing defense. Only one starter has changed – safety Tyrell Johnson in place of Darren Sharper – so what gives?

Since Brett Favre and Brad Childress referenced Sherlock Holmes in the fourth quarter of the Baltimore game, we'll call on Mr. Holmes as well for sleuthing the answer: The answer, dear Watson, is fundamental – or, rather, fundamentals.

"I think you treat 6-0 like 0-6. You would always go back to fundamentals. If there is an area that you didn't do well in, you go back to fundamentals," Childress said. "… In this case you're talking about tackling. Getting them to the ground is important and understanding if you are the last line of defense or you've got help coming and you are supposed to take a side on the tackle because there are people coming inside out. That's what you talk about when you talk about responsibility and responsibility defense that knows where your wingman is (and) not jumping inside."

Maybe the worst flaw last Sunday came on a 63-yard pass play to Ray Rice. It started as a short pass to the right, but the missed tackles started piling up on the play. Chad Greenway missed. Karl Paymah and E.J. Henderson both failed in their attempts, and so did Madieu Williams. It wasn't until the 12-yard line that Johnson caught the running back.

"They are prideful guys. They want to play well. They want to play well every snap, and every series, and every game," Childress said. "Now, does that mean that they don't ever get physically beat or mentally beat on a snap, a series, a game? No, it doesn't mean that. Those guys have played well. They will play well again. We'll get their best effort."

But several defenders entered the season talking about becoming the No. 1 overall defense, not just first against the run. After Joe Flacco put up 385 yards passing, the Vikings now have the league's 24th-ranked passing defense, a point of frustration for some defenders.

"Frustration certainly is a good word. We are frustrated," said linebacker Ben Leber. "Nobody is happy with the way we performed and where we're sitting at statistically. It's not all about stats, but if we're ranking high in stats we're doing something good for the team. We are frustrated.

"We're not overly frustrated to the point where we're going to play outside of ourselves and outside the scheme. We recognize what happened and where we made some mistakes and they're easily correctable."

Going against Ben Roethlisberger and the league's second-ranked passing attack would be a great time to get those mistakes corrected.

TWO OF A KIND

Favre's ability to get safeties to move by following his eyes might never be more valuable than this two-game stretch against two of the best safeties in the league – Baltimore's Ed Reed and Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu.

Favre's veteran savvy worked at least one against Reed last Sunday. The quarterback capped the Vikings' opening drive with a 19-yard touchdown bullet to Visanthe Shiancoe after Favre looked left as long as he could before throwing behind Shiancoe to the right because leading Shiancoe would have taken him right into the ball-hawking safety.

"I tried to look him off as long as I could. He reads eyes about as good as anyone in this league. If you break down tape like we break down tape, the guy can fly first, of all. He's just a player," Favre said of Reed.

This week is another big steely-eyed test with Polamalu in the deep middle.

"That's probably as good an analogy as there is in the AFC," Childress said of comparing the two safeties. "Even though they play in different schemes of defense, they both have great instincts and skills – not just instinct, but you can see there is a bunch of film study and there is some deception involved as well. They are trying to give you a tell that they are doing one thing and then do something quite different. So you need to be mindful of where they are at now."

That applies to the running game as well. Adrian Peterson had 143 yards rushing against the Ravens, but he came away from the game with a respect for Reed and comparisons between him and Polamalu. It's not just their physical ability, but their drive to be good.

"They are both physical players. They are both always around the ball," Peterson said. "When you are talking about players, you got to think of how they are and what drives them. That right there alone makes them two different types of players. Some things that they have in common are, they both are physical and both are heck of ball players."

So far, Favre has been playing lights-out, with 12 touchdowns, two interceptions and a 109.5 passer rating. He'll need to be on top of his game again to avoid Polamalu setting those numbers back.

"We need to feel very good about the way we played against (the Ravens) and the fact that we didn't let Ed to get one, because I was concerned," Favre said. "It's like playing Troy Polamalu this week. (They are) ball hawks, and very smart route readers."

Polamalu has a knee injury that limited him in practice last week, but he said he intends to play.

Things that are working: Brett Favre's stock continues to go up. He is reading defenses brilliantly and using his 18 previous years of NFL experience to potentially make his 19th year the best yet. He is the third-rated quarterback in the league.

… The offensive line. With two first-year starters – John Sullivan at center and Phil Loadholt at right tackle – the chemistry appears to be coming together. Sullivan and Favre are said to be working together better with protections and it's showing. In the first three games, Favre was sacked nine times. In the last three games, he was sacked five times. Still, there is room for improvement. The Vikings rank only 20th in the league in sacks per pass play, and the Steelers will present another strong challenge.

… The running game. "Where is Peterson?" Those types of cries quieted a bit after his 143-yard rushing performance last Sunday, and he's back to leading the league with 624 yards through six games.

… The pass rush. The Vikings rank second in the league defensively in sacks per pass play. Jared Allen is third in the league with 7.5 sacks.

… The red zone: The Vikings have the top-rated offense in the red zone, scoring 15 TDs on 23 possessions that reached inside the 20-yard line, and they are second in the NFL in red zone defense, allowing five TDs on 15 possessions in close.

Things of some concern: The secondary, for sure, with Antoine Winfield being listed as doubtful and going against the league's second-rated passing offense. But there also has to be some concern with tackling ability, especially with Tyrell Johnson, who seems to have the physical tools to make it work. Even so, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had high praise (or is it hyperbole?) for his safeties this week. "I really believe that Madieu and Tyrell will have a chance to be Pro Bowl players over time," Frazier said. "They just have to gain experience, continue to see things and continue to get better and it will happen. It will happen."

… A sloppy Heinz field. The Steelers' home stadium also got use on Saturday with the University of Pittsburgh playing South Florida. It could lead to chewed-up field conditions between the Vikings and Steelers. Fortunately, the Vikings have a veteran kicker, Ryan Longwell, used to all sorts of conditions. "Ryan has performed at a high level in a lot of tough places to play," said special teams coordinator Brian Murphy. "He spent his career in Lambeau and kicked in Soldier Field. I think that he will be able to adjust."


Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

Viking Update Top Stories