The Purple Point Machine

With an easy schedule and the league's most exciting rookie added to an already potent offense, this year's Vikings need to deliver on suddenly high expectations

The news on the rest of the defense is mixed and situational, especially among the linebackers. If the Vikings are up by 10 in the second half at the Dome, you're likely to love what this athletic group does to opponents forced to pass. If the situation is reversed on the road, particularly on grass, you'll undoubtedly groan as these relative smurfs get plowed under by good-blocking fullbacks and tight ends. Still, it doesn't make much sense to bemoan the fact that Ed McDaniel, Dwayne Rudd, and Dixon Edwards aren't all big and fast enough to make every play on every field; the last linebacker who could do that was Lawrence Taylor, and he's not available.

Second-year weakside linebacker Rudd, at 6 feet 2 inches and 248 pounds, has better size to take on the run than do McDaniel (5-11, 231) and Edwards (6-1, 234), and he moves just as well. The justifiable knock on Rudd during his first season was that he showed questionable instincts and was easily fooled by misdirection and play-action offensive schemes, but his preseason performance indicates that was mostly a rookie's learning curve. He sure looked like a ball hawk on his touchdown against the Patriots, when, as New England's Terry Glenn juggled the football after a hit by Corey Fuller, Rudd broke from his pass coverage in the middle of the field to make the pick and explode down the sideline. Even on this play, though, Rudd left some doubt regarding his decision-making skills. With no defender in sight, he exuberantly dove into the end zone at full speed, landing squarely on his right shoulder, and no doubt inducing cringes throughout the state. Without this guy, 11-5 can turn into 8-8.

And without undertackle John Randle, 11-5 can become 6-10, for there's really no underestimating his ability to keep the Vikings in games. Of all the players the Vikings locked up with big-dollar, long-term deals in the past two seasons--including Brad Johnson, Todd Steussie, Robert Smith, and Cris Carter--Randle is the one whose signing prompts zero second-guessing. He stays healthy. He plays the run well and rushes the passer superlatively, registering 841/2 sacks since 1991, more than any other NFL player. He's unblockable with one offensive lineman, partially blockable with two, and usually worth the three he sometimes attracts.

Randy Moss's exemplary behavior--on and off the field--has Vikings fans smiling
David Kern
Randy Moss's exemplary behavior--on and off the field--has Vikings fans smiling

Which is where Randle's colleagues on the defensive line come in. If at least one of them doesn't consistently make the opponent pay for shifting personnel in Randle's direction, the defense will routinely expose an already shaky secondary, and the Vikes will ultimately rack up stats similar to those of last year, when they yielded more first downs and more total yards than anyone in the NFC. Granted, with the Vikings' potent offense and the occasional timely takeaway (Minnesota finished with plus five last year, fourth best in the conference), you can still win nine nerve-racking games this way, but that no longer sounds good to anybody associated with the team.

If most of the higher expectations are based on the offense, well, there's not much to dislike on that side of the ball. Robert Smith is his usual productive, error-free self, averaging 4.2 yards per carry with zero fumbles during the exhibition season (and he hasn't been hurt yet, either). Brad Johnson's play has been spotty, but it's raised no concrete reason to doubt that he's fully recovered from last December's surgery on a herniated disk in his neck. Billick says that as offensive coordinator he's paid to nitpick, and even he can only cite the general concerns any coach would--reducing mental errors, using the proper technique, communicating better, "getting into the groove."

Nitpicking gets a little easier when looking at the Vikings' collection of tight ends. Andrew Glover is easily the best receiver among the bunch, but his hands are still only average, and his blocking, though improved, would rank in the bottom half among his peers. Hunter Goodwin, a converted tackle, blocks more like a lineman, but unfortunately tends to catch the ball like one, too. Glover and Goodwin were also penalty-prone in the preseason. The number-three tight end, Greg DeLong, blocks better than he catches and probably isn't good enough to move up on Green's depth chart.

Sure, a Carter/Reed/Moss unit sounds potentially unstoppable--if the blocking holds up, Johnson retains his arm strength and mobility, and Carter can handle sharing the glory with a budding superstar such as Moss. But if any of that breaks down, the Vikings will lack the personnel to get much benefit out of a double-tight-end formation. If both tight ends have decent hands, this set gives defenses nightmares. With three potential blockers lined up on each side of the center, they still have to respect the run, even without a lead-blocking fullback. If the two tight ends run patterns, one and sometimes both draw single coverage, often with winded linebackers.

For now, Billick defends the current trio. "They show up when they need to show up. They're doing a good job blocking. They've been available for us. Again, the tight end is going to catch three, four balls a game for us, and that's about it. That gives us that 50 that we need out of the tight-end position."

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