Additions, internal improvement excite Vikes

For years, the Vikings have tried to upgrade the defense. Coach Mike Tice thinks they have finally done so.

Updated: August 10, 2004, 3:00 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

MANKATO, Minn. -- The first thing that strikes you when watching the Vikings is the speed. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper spent the offseason in Orlando running stairs to strengthen his calves in order to run out of the pocket more if the first two reads are covered.

Randy Moss looks even more freakish following a second offseason of intense weightlifting and conditioning, checking in now at 210 pounds. Halfback Michael Bennett flirted with thoughts of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic teams in the 100 and 200 meters, but instead decided to make his gold medal a division title by outracing Green Bay for the NFC North crown.

"Right now, I'm a 10-flat in the 100," Bennett said. "I'm a little heavier than I would run in a meet. I'm about 210. Normally, I would run at 205. You look at the trials and third place was 10.02. My fastest would have automatically put me in there."

The biggest race against the clock, though, is on defense. For three years, the Vikings have been drafting quicker, more powerful athletes to man what had become one of the league's worst defenses. On Friday, in a scrimmage against the Chiefs, the Vikings unveiled the unfinished product. Sure, there were mistakes. Players are still learning a new scheme by defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. But, these Vikings aren't battleships propelled by oars. They are more power boat than frigate. The defensive line is quicker and more dangerous. Linebackers E.J. Henderson and Dontarrious Thomas exploded out of their positions when the ball was snapped.

"We've got a lot more speed on the defensive side of the ball compared to last year," Henderson said. "If you make a mistake, make it at 100 miles an hour."

At times, the Vikings tried to patch their defensive deficiencies with aging veterans. Middle linebacker Greg Biekert might have been the best in recognizing formations and calling out adjustments. But his aging legs weren't quick enough anymore to consistently get to the play. He retired. Tice tried for two years to find cornerbacks to stop the leakages in the pass defense.

Though he thought Brian Williams had the makings of a good cornerback, Tice still lacked the No. 1 guy to make his job easier. His solution: Make the quickest audible call of his career.

Antoine Winfield
Cornerback
Minnesota Vikings
Profile
2003 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
109 96 13 2 1 1
Free agent Antoine Winfield was on verge of signing a big deal with the Jets, though he was not totally sold on the situation. The Vikings continued to pitch thoughts of him joining their defense. They sold him on how they've assembled the best defensive line that side of Carolina. Winfield was intrigued. They sold him on reuniting with Cottrell, his former coordinator in Buffalo. Finally, Tice commissioned a charter jet from a horse-racing friend to steal Winfield away from the Jets and talked him into signing their offer.

Winfield's signing might have been the final piece that could turn the Vikings into a playoff team.

"He's the best tackler I've been around," Cottrell said. "He's just a good football player. He didn't get a lot of interceptions in Buffalo because he didn't get a lot of balls his ways. But he is a smart player. He's a leader. I'm glad to be back with him."

Teams who have cornerback troubles get chewed up in the NFC North. This was a division once loaded with big, strong possession receivers -- Cris Carter, Antonio Freeman, Marty Booker, Herman Moore and others. Now, the receivers are big and fast. You have Moss, Javon Walker and Robert Ferguson along with Roy Williams and Charles Rogers.

Few cornerbacks can survive those matchups, so the team with the best defensive line could win the division crown. Tice is confident his front four -- Kenechi Udeze, Chris Hovan, Kevin Williams and Kenny Mixon -- can make the cornerbacks' jobs easier by pressuring the quarterbacks.

"I think our defense needs to be built around the defensive front," Tice said. "It needs to be the strength of our defensive football team. We need to go out and play six or seven guys on our defensive line and wear down opponents. We need to be relentless to the quarterback. We have to be relentless to the ball and go after it with a passion."

That's what the Carolina Panthers did last year in winning the NFC championship. Their four-man defensive line overpowered schemes that had six and seven blockers. Tice believes he has the next Kris Jenkins in Williams, a 2003 first-rounder who bounced between end and tackle last year.

This year, Williams has settled into the defensive tackle role. Take pity on the guards and centers forced to stop him.

"Kevin is one of the best interior lineman in football," Tice said. "He's got size at 318 pounds. He's got exceptional speed. There was a play the other day in which Michael Bennett broke off a 45-yard run. Kevin ran down field and tackled him. He's a playmaker."

Said Hovan, "Kevin is a rising star. This is the best line I've been a part of. Carolina has proven (it has) a good defensive line. Now, it's our turn to do that."

When Hovan came into the league, the Vikings were one of the smallest defensive lines in football. John Randle played in the 270-pound range and relied on quickness and strength. Hovan copied his hustle, but his play slipped a little last year because he got too bulky from lifting too many weights.

"I didn't do as well last year as I did the previous year," Hovan said. "I've gone back to my roots. Before, I was known as a disruptor. Get penetration and screw up blocking schemes."

He's the best tackler I've been around. He's just a good football player. He didn't get a lot of interceptions in Buffalo because he didn't get a lot of balls his ways. But he is a smart player. He's a leader.
Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell on CB Antoine Winfield

Hovan plans to shoot the gaps in the middle of a blocking scheme. Williams simply plans to overpower them. If they can collapse the middle of protection schemes, Udeze and Mixon could have big seasons in terms of sacks.

This is a young defense that should grow. Unlike the past, starting positions aren't patched with 30-year-old-plus veterans at the end of their career. Mixon is the oldest starter, and he's only 29. Chris Claiborne is the oldest linebacker, and he's only 26 with five seasons of experience.

A lot of energy will come from two rookies -- Udeze and outside linebacker Dontarrious Thomas. Udeze is strong-side sack specialist. Thomas is expected to be the best linebacker for pursuit.

"He's a freak," Tice said of Thomas. "He's run a 4.4 and he weighs more than 250 pounds. He's rangy and he's smart. We're athletic at outside linebacker. Chris Claiborne had an excellent offseason. And Mike Nattiel, whom we drafted last year, is no throwaway."

Among the challenges for Tice and company are making sure they don't fizzle for a second straight year. They got off to a 6-0 start last year. The key this year is to sustain the momentum. The Packers may be vulnerable, but they aren't going to concede anything.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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