Vikings set sights on improvement

The Vikings got off to a 7-1 start this year, but they aren't satisfied. Players on offense, defense and special teams outlines areas they've done well and where they can make improvements.

For the symmetrical world of the NFL with its 32 teams divided into eight four-team divisions, the concept of the bye week is a time for players to heal from injuries accumulated during the preseason and the regular season and a chance to recharge their batteries for the stretch run in November and December.

For the Vikings, the bye week fell exactly in the middle of their 2009 regular season. Eight games have been played. Eight more remain. It seemed like the ideal respite from the grind of the season.

The team couldn't have done much better in the first half of the season, finishing with a 7-1 record, a choke hold on the NFC North championship and five of their remaining eight games to be played in the friendly confines of the Metrodome.

Some of the Vikings reflected on what has been accomplished in the first half of the season and what lies as the Vikings look to continue their dominance atop the division as well as their quest for home field advantage in the playoffs.

Rookie offensive tackle Phil Loadholt said he's feeling good about his progress in his first NFL season, but said the offense is focused on improving to a higher level and eliminating the up-and-down cycles that stalled the offense early in some games and at critical times in the second half of others.

"Consistency has been our biggest problem," Loadholt said. "We've talked about it – having too many three-and-out drives. That's something we can definitely pick up on. Protecting the quarterback is always an issue, even though we've done a pretty good job of that so far. We're looking for improvement to the running game, because Adrian has a lot of talent and we need to give him holes to run through and do what he does best."

The Vikings success in the first half of the season was due in no small part to the rapport built between quarterback Brett Favre and his receivers. His ability to sustain drives, consistently find the open man and deliver a pass on time and on target has impressed his teammates. No player exemplifies that more than Sidney Rice.

In his first two seasons, Rice played in 26 games – catching 46 passes for 537 yards and eight touchdowns. In eight games with Favre, he has caught 37 passes for 585 yards and two touchdowns and is on pace to be the Vikings' first 1,000-yard receiver since Nate Burleson in 2004. He said the success of the offense has been more than he imagined it could be, thanks to players putting in the extra time needed to improve.

"I feel like we've exceeded some of our expectations," Rice said. "The chemistry that we have developed as a team and as an offense is great. The addition of Brett and Percy and how hard everyone has worked has been amazing. You don't see a lot of teams out there after practice. We have so many guys out there after practice doing extra stuff and the little things it takes to be a better ball team. I feel like we've exceeded what we thought we could do."

Another new star who emerged in the first half of the season was rookie Percy Harvin. He has provided an explosiveness never seen in the Vikings' kickoff return game, has become a favorite target of Favre (especially on third down) and has scored five touchdowns – three receiving and two on kick returns. His name is being thrown around as a frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but he said he never set a goal to be the league's top offensive rookie and hasn't given the prospect much thought given the success the team has enjoyed.

"I don't worry about (individual awards)," Harvin said. "My goal is to win the big thing at the end of the year. If the (Offensive Rookie of the Year) comes around, I'll be happy to have it, but I'm looking at a bigger goal."

The mindset of the offense is two-fold – be proud of what you accomplished, but realize that past is prologue and means nothing moving forward other than building a sizeable cushion in the event of a misstep here or there down the road.

"We've been happy with how things have progressed, but we're not satisfied," left tackle Bryant McKinnie said. "There are a lot of little things we can do to get better – limit turnovers, do a better job on third down. We aren't satisfied and that is our focus."

The same is true for the Vikings defense. While the team is 7-1, the defense is ranked 18th in the league, based on the system of total yards allowed. In four of those games – against San Francisco, Baltimore and both Green Bay games – the Vikings built significant leads in the second half, only to have the opponent rally for second-half scores to cut into the big deficit. As a result, opponents have rolled up bigger yardage totals on the Vikings than they would like.

No team in the league has been better at sacking the quarterback than the Vikings. They've notched 31 sacks and have more sacks per pass attempt than any team in the NFL. But their calling over the last three years has been an oppressive run defense. The Vikings ranked No. 1 in the league each of the last three years in run defense, but are currently sixth. That would be good for a lot of teams, but not the Vikings. What makes it worse is that opposing teams are averaging 4.1 yards a carry – the same average as the Adrian Peterson-led Vikings ground game has averaged.

"There are improvements that we want to make," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "We want to give up less points. We want to give up less rushing yards. It's just about being consistent week in and week out and not giving up junk yardage and scores at the end of halves and end of games. There's always something you want to improve. We could be the No. 1-ranked defense in the league and we would still want to improve,"

Perhaps the biggest difference has come on special teams. An Achilles heel of the team last year that set records for futility in 2008, the Vikings have been among the leagues best in four phases of the kicking game – kick coverage, punt coverage, kick returns and punt returns. A constant source of concern last year, the Vikings have all but eliminated the critical gaffes that plagued them last year.

"We're doing a really solid job in the return games," punter Chris Kluwe said. "In all of the phases, we've shown a pretty marked improvement over last year. The one return at Cleveland was really the only blunder we've had. We're trying to keep building on it and stay with what we're doing."

Kicker Ryan Longwell has been all but perfect, making 13 of 14 field goals and the only miss was blocked well before it could get to the goal posts. He said the change has come from the top, where new special teams coach Brian Murphy made a point to bury the ghosts of 2008 from the get-go and infuse new life into the special teams unit.

"The biggest thing was that Murph came in from Day One and said that last year was in the past," Longwell said. "His infectious speech and his pop has made guys want to go cover kicks. It's really been fun. We have a great core group and a lot of us have been together a while and Murph has changed the whole mindset."

The Vikings return to work Sunday looking to mirror the success they enjoyed in the first half of the season. They had a chance to reflect on what they have accomplished during the bye week and can rightly be proud of their achievement. But, the second half of the season is a journey yet traveled and the players are already burying the success of the first half and moving forward to the next chapter in the 2009 season.

"You could look at numbers any way you want to cut it," Greenway said. "It's all in the past. It's a new season from here on out – eight games. We want to separate ourselves from those first eight and just play good football starting on Sunday."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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