Ban the Bomb

For Vikings fans, one play from Minnesota's 38-31 victory over the Rams on September 13 exemplifies their long-term fears: On the first snap of the fourth quarter, St. Louis wide receiver Isaac Bruce streaked by cornerback Corey Fuller on a fly pattern, even though Fuller had lined up 8 yards off him. Rams quarterback Tony Banks delivered the ball to Bruce on the dead run. Fuller then foolishly concentrated on knocking the ball out of Bruce's hands when he could've pushed him out of bounds around the Vikings' 6-yard line. Meanwhile, strong safety Robert Griffith moved toward that side of the field so late that he barely made it into viewers' TV screens as Bruce motored into the end zone for an 80-yard touchdown that tied the game at 31 apiece.

This is the sort of thing that'll eventually kill us, backers of the Purple must figure: corners who can get smoked on deep pass patterns even when playing soft off of the line of scrimmage, and safeties whose instincts and/or quickness just aren't good enough to save those situations. If mediocre quarterbacks such as Tony Banks and Trent Dilfer can spend the better part of afternoons playing catch with their receivers, what will star opponents such as San Francisco's Steve Young and Green Bay's Brett Favre do?

Cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock and the rest of the Vikings defense will trade a lot of short pass completions to make sure opponents don't beat them deep
Cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock and the rest of the Vikings defense will trade a lot of short pass completions to make sure opponents don't beat them deep

But then--just to keep everybody confused--comes a game like Sunday's 29-6 win against Detroit, when Herman Moore, arguably the all-around scariest wide receiver on the planet, did little damage. The Vikings also contained his able wideout colleague, Johnnie Morton. The easy answer is to chalk it up to Lions coach Bobby Ross's decision to bench quarterback Scott Mitchell--whose production-to-expectations ratio might be the lowest in NFL history--and go with rookie Charlie Batch, who had never taken a snap in a regular-season game. If the Lions' receivers are so good, however, and the Vikings' defensive backs so bad, then any NFL-caliber quarterback should be able to hit a wide-open Herman Moore. Instead, the Vikes not only shut down Detroit's passing game, but held the league's best runner, Barry Sanders, to just 69 yards rushing.

According to Vikings defensive coordinator Foge Fazio, the difference comes down to simple execution. "If a corner's playing seven or eight yards off, he isn't supposed to get beat deep, and the pass rush should be enough that the quarterback can't have enough time to hold the ball to get him beat deep."

In fact, the Vikings' defensive strategy is so concerned with preventing the deep pass play that Fazio's unit practically invites opponents to complete the shorter square-out and curl-in patterns and try to slowly but surely work their way down the field. There are two very good rationales for adopting this approach. First, as Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter has recently noted, if opponents rely on chipping their way downfield by throwing for five or six yards at a time, there's little chance they'll outscore the hyper-talented Vikings offense.

Second, the more plays it takes for Minnesota's opponents to score, the greater the possibility that they'll make a mistake. Eventually, the reasoning goes, the Vikings' defensive line will sack the quarterback for a big loss, or cause a hurried throw that results in an interception--and sure enough, the team currently leads the NFL with seven picks.

But if the strategy has succeeded against plodding offenses from Detroit and Tampa Bay, the jury's still out on how it will fare against the Big Two, Green Bay and San Francisco, who thrive on taking the short passes and turning them into something longer by putting receivers in good positions to run after the catch. And that's where we started, with nightmares about Steve Young and Brett Favre. Waiting for them to screw up is usually a bad idea--so far, they've thrown two interceptions between them. And both Green Bay and San Francisco--particularly the Packers--sport defenses that are more stingy than what the Vikings offense has encountered thus far.

Nevertheless, Minnesota remains undefeated by letting the offense work its expected magic and getting just enough big plays out of its susceptible defense. "One of our big things from last year," Fazio says, "is that we weren't very good on the bomb, like we gave up last week to Bruce. We said, 'Hey, you can't do that, you can't give them the 80-yard bomb.' If the corners don't allow that to happen, then we'll have a great chance to win the game and play pretty good defense." The Monday night showdown with the Packers on October 5, which should involve undefeated teams, will say a lot about whether he's right.

 
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