Old-school formula positions Vikings as surprise contender

Posted Oct. 01, 2012 @ 11:22 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

Minnesota entered the season regarded as the bottom-dweller in the NFC North, considered lucky to win a quarter of their games and widely expected to pull up last in the division, unable to compete with the likes of the Packers, just two years removed from a Super Bowl title, the newly loaded Bears’ offense and steadily improving Jim Schwartz-led Lions.

Instead, it is the Leslie Frazier-led Vikings sitting atop the division, already matching their win total from a season ago and halting an 11-game losing streak in the NFC North with a 20-13 victory at Detroit. The Vikings owe much of their success to the incredibly quick-healing Adrian Peterson, who has established the inside ground game and allowed the offense to control the clock with an old-fashioned brand of power football, taking a page straight out of the 1985 Bears philosophy that Frazier and assistant head coach Mike Singletary learned well from Mike Ditka.

Strong special-teams play was also critical, starting with Percy Harvin’s cross-field, game-opening 105-yard kickoff return. PR Marcus Sherels played an unsung role by returning the first punt of the second half 77 yards, giving the Vikings their only touchdowns of the day in a game in which they were considerably outproduced on offense.

Where the Vikings have made their greatest strides this season, however, has been on defense, where new defensive coordinator Alan Williams, having spent time with Frazier in Indianapolis under Tony Dungy, has brought an attitude to Minnesota.

To beat the Lions, the No. 1 job of any defense is to contain Calvin Johnson. Rookie FS Harrison Smith, who matches up very well with the game’s most talented receiver in the jumpball situations that Johnson so often dominates, broke up a TD pass with a physical hit that left Johnson short-arming the ball at times later in the game. A heavy hit from SLB Chad Greenway that was flagged for unnecessary roughness also kept Johnson on edge.

Last season, the Vikings' D-line showed noticeable signs of deteriorating and an infusion of youth has added a lot of energy to the Vikings’ defense, with Letroy Guion, Christian Ballard and Everson Griffen all bringing a disruptive presence to the front. The 25-year-old Guion, who entered the NFL early out of Florida State, has become a crafty hand technician in his fifth season, and had Lions ORG Stephen Peterman spinning in circles as he produced two sacks. Griffen, who possessed first-round athletic traits but slid to the fourth round in 2010 because of character concerns, is proving to be a situational force inside and outside, also racked up two sacks of his own, as OLT Jeff Backus was frequently run around by Griffen and DRE Jared Allen. Griffen looked unblockable at times when he rushed from the inside. Factor the fleet-footed Ballard, a fourth-round pick in 2011, into the equation and the Vikings might have more foot speed on the interior of their D-line than any other team in football. Plus, DEs Brian Robison and Allen crash the corners hard and bring tons of energy to the edges.

The Vikings have taken a lot of chances in the draft on defensive talent that's rough around the edges, but with the steady presence of Frazier, the Vikings have been able to keep it in line and are reaping the rewards of a wily bunch that has climbed back into the NFL’s top 10 defenses.

The offense might not be prolific, it gained just 227 yards of total offense vs. the Lions, but with help from special teams, Frazier and Vikings GM Rick Spielman have put together a winning formula in the first quarter of the season with sound, ball-control, mistake-free, defense-driven football similar to the Cardinals. And it just might position the underdog Vikings as surprise playoff contenders.

• The Lions’ running game is anemic with Mikel Leshoure tiptoeing through holes very gingerly the same way he did at Illinois, often looking for a soft landing spot, and coughing up the ball on his first and only extended run of the day late in the third quarter. The Lions’ running game is stronger with Joique Bell, who was trusted with more time in the fourth quarter and is being used in a closing role. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Wayne State in 2010 by the Bills after earning the Harlon Hill Trophy as Division II’s Player of the Year, Bell also had stints in Phliadelphia, Indianapolis and New Orleans before coming to Detroit last season. He ran pedestrian 40-times of 4.68 and 4.72 at his pro day coming out of college at 217 pounds and has not followed a conventional path, but with good hands and blocking ability, he can factor every down. He would give the Lions’ offense a better option all four quarters than the highly drafted LeShoure, who still does not appear to be in playing shape after sitting out the first two games while suspended.

Rex Ryan and Tony Sparano have come to be known for their creative genius in coaching circles, with Ryan consistently deploying a wide array of overload blitzes and Sparano being the first to introduce the "Wildcat" formation to the NFL in Miami. Both were on board with bringing wild card Tim Tebow to New York, in large part to keep defenses guessing how they will use him. In San Francisco’s 34-0 shutout victory, which easily could have been 41-0 had Colin Kaepernick not slid down on the Jets' 3 to avoid running up the score after a long run in the final two minutes, it was the proud sledgehammering Jim Harbaugh that outfoxed the opposition, sparking the offense by sprinkling in the option run by Kapernick. For the 49ers to climb the hill, they need more production from the quarterback position and are wise to be finding ways to get Kapernick much-needed experience, even if it’s not coming in traditional fashion.   

• With WR Stephen Hill out and Santonio Holmes going down with a foot injury on the heels of last week’s loss of the NFL’s best coverman, Darrelle Revis, the Jets’ season is beginning to look hopeless. They are now 0-2 without Revis in the lineup, and their top offensive skill talent could be out for an extended period. As much as fans might be pointing their finger at QB Mark Sanchez, he was heavily handicapped Sunday without his two top receivers and an overmatched offensive line that did him no favors. No team has been hit harder by key injuries in the first quarter of the season, and it will be an uphill battle for the Jets to remain competitive the rest of the season. Good teams never use injuries as an excuse and find a way to lock and reload. Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum have their work cut out trying to resolve a lot of lingering issues.

• The Chiefs have been outscored 41-6 in the first quarter this season and shot themselves in the foot against San Diego by turning the ball over five times in the first half. As impressive as it was overcoming a franchise-record 18-point deficit last week against New Orleans, Belichickian football is premised on playing with a lead and Bill Belichick’s former trusted disciples Romeo Crennel and GM Scott Pioli need to find a way to start much faster in the first quarter if they want to dig out of their 1-3 hole.  

• The addition of two top-flight corners, Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, in the offseason has been paying huge dividends for Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, who fields the NFL’s top passing defense through three weeks. Bears OTs J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi will have a very difficult time matching up against the NFL’s best pass-rushing OLB tandem of DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer if they are not given a lot of extra chip help, which limits options in the passing game for Jay Cutler and should allow Carr and Claiborne to provide better coverage. Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli fields one of the most disciplined defenses in the league, having been called for a league-low 11 defensive penalties. With two quarterbacks best known for boneheaded decisions facing off, the quarterback who can keep his composure in the face of the storm stands the best chance to win in what figures to be a low-scoring, defensive-dominated affair on Monday night in Dallas.