Vikings shake up offensive line

Updated: October 15, 2005, 10:56 AM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

As owner Zygi Wilf attempts to address the Minnesota Vikings' bad-boy image, in the wake of allegations some players participated in a debauchery-marked lake junket last week, coach Mike Tice has set out to clean up his team's bad offensive line play.

Tice has shaken up the line for Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, moving in two new starters in an attempt to find some consistency on a blocking unit that has struggled as the Vikings, the preseason favorites in the NFC North, have limped to a 1-3 start.

Fourth-year veteran Melvin Fowler, acquired from the Cleveland Browns in a Labor Day trade, will replace Cory Withrow at center. In a move anticipated for a couple of weeks, rookie Marcus Johnson has been demoted at right guard in favor of Adam Goldberg.

It is expected that Johnson, a second-round draft pick from the University of Mississippi, who played mostly at tackle in college, will spell Goldberg for some series on Sunday. But the indications are that, unless he is injured, Fowler will play the entire game at the key center position.

"We'll see how the game progresses," Tice said. "If we have something there's that is not broken, we'll leave it that way."

Minnesota started the same offensive line -- left tackle Bryant McKinnie, left guard Chris Liwienski, Withrow at center, Johnson at right guard, and left tackle Mike Rosenthal -- in each of its first four games. The result: The Vikings statistically rank 24th in the league in total offense and their once-potent attack has rarely been in synch.

Some observers attribute the offensive slippage to the departure of wide receiver Randy Moss, traded to Oakland in the offseason, and the uneven performance of quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who has been prone to turnovers. But the blocking has not been very crisp all season, especially for the running game, and it is not surprising that Tice made changes in the lineup during his club's bye week.

The Vikings have struggled at center since losing four-time Pro Bowl performer Matt Birk to season-ending hip surgery just before the start of the campaign. At 287 pounds, Withrow is not as stout as Birk and he has been pushed around by opposing defenders. In fact, the line in general does not feature any strong drive-blockers with Birk out. The unit has some solid technicians, like both starting tackles, but lacks overall physical presence.

The hope is that Fowler, who is starting his first game in a Vikings uniform, will provide some muscle. The downside might be that Fowler probably doesn't have as good a grasp on the mental side of the Minnesota offense, making the adjustment calls, but that he will be more rugged than Withrow had been.

Fowler was acquired from Cleveland for backup tackle Nat Dorsey in a deal that came as teams were reducing their rosters to the regular-season limit. The Minnesota staff knew that Fowler probably would challenge for a starting job at some point this season, but had to wait for him to assimiliate the playbook. Fowler played briefly in a loss at Atlanta that came just before the bye. His play Sunday, coaches agree, will be critical for the Vikings.

A third-round choice in the 2002 draft, Fowler appeared in 30 games in three seasons with the Browns, and logged 14 starts. There were some coaches on the former Cleveland staff who felt Fowler had surpassed starting center Jeff Faine, a former first-round pick, late last season.

Minnesota desperately needs a win Sunday, not just to quiet some of the criticism from the team's latest off-field misadventure, but to make progress in an NFC North division whose overall decline means the Vikings are still very much in the playoff chase despite their 1-3 record.

As disappointing as their poor start has been the play of the Vikings offense, which was expected, even minus Moss, to be a potent unit. The No. 24 ranking is the team's worst after four games in recent history. Minnesota ranked No. 1 in offense after four games in 2004 and No. 2 at the quarter-pole of the 2003 season. Even in 2002, when the Vikings started the year 0-4, they were the ninth-best offense in the league in the first month.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.