Undefeated Vikings still see ways to get better

Originally Published: October 20, 2003
ESPN

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings began the week as the NFC's only unbeaten team.

The best part, the way they see it, is that there's plenty of room for improvement.

"You have to get better every week or you're going to get passed," free safety Brian Russell said Monday, reflecting on a 28-20 win over Denver that pushed Minnesota's record to 6-0.

For everything they did right on Sunday, the Vikings also gave up 27 first downs, had only one sustained scoring drive and committed 14 penalties against the Broncos.

"We're still not a good football team. We have a long way to go," coach Mike Tice said. "I know you guys roll your eyes at me when I say that, but we can be better -- and we have to be better before we can beat some of the teams we're playing in the coming weeks."

Well, it shouldn't be all that tough.

The New York Giants (2-4) and Green Bay Packers (3-4) are the next two opponents, both at the Metrodome. They're followed by trips to San Diego (1-5) and Oakland (2-4 entering Monday night), then a home game against Detroit (1-5).

Three of the final five contests look like a challenge: at St. Louis (4-2) on Nov. 30, Seattle (5-1) on Dec. 7 and Kansas City (6-0 before Monday night's matchup with the Raiders) on Dec. 20. But there's also a road game at Chicago (1-5) on Dec. 14 and a regular season-ending visit to Arizona (1-5).

If the Vikings continue playing like they are, let alone find ways to make progress, they should be in awfully good shape for the postseason.

"Hopefully we don't get too complacent with everything going on," said wide receiver Randy Moss, who has a whopping 23 receptions for 404 yards and five touchdowns in his last three games. "I really just want to keep doing what we're doing."

That includes playing with a balanced offensive attack, pressuring opposing quarterbacks, forcing a ton of turnovers, not committing many themselves and avoiding the colossal mistakes on special teams that hurt them last year.

The Vikings have an NFL-high 16 interceptions, including six by Russell and five by strong safety Corey Chavous. They've got 18 total takeaways and have given the ball up just five times themselves.

Minnesota has become a perfect example of how critical turnovers can be in this game. The Vikings went 6-10 last year, and their turnover differential of minus-18 (41 giveaways, 23 takeaways) was the NFL's second-worst behind St. Louis.

Defensive coordinator George O'Leary has helped instill a more aggressive approach, one that's based on blitzing and rewards risks.

"You've got to shoot your gun," he said. "It's ready, aim, fire. I think last year it was aim, aim, aim. You're going to make some mistakes, but the mistakes aren't a problem if you make the plays."

Russell and Chavous have put up big interception numbers because of tight coverage by the cornerbacks -- something that hasn't happened consistently around here since 1998 -- and an improved pass rush.

"We're making the quarterbacks feel claustrophobic in the pocket," Tice said. "Making him throw some high balls."

Though the Vikings' didn't run the ball as well against Denver as they did in the first five weeks of the season (72 yards, well below their average of 137 per game), quarterback Daunte Culpepper was sharp in his return after missing 2{ games with broken bones in his back.

His passer rating of 114.8 leads the league, and he's yet to throw an interception in 95 attempts. Last year, he led the NFL with 23 in 549 attempts.

"He's got a little bit of that playmaker and that gambler in him, but he knows the risks need to be calculated," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "For him to be able to come back and not have critical mistakes was great."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index