Stars Out Of The Spotlight Series Continues

Posted by Ryan Cardinal on February 18, 2010 – 11:25 am

Our 5-part series recognizing 5 Vikings players who had excellent seasons but remained mostly out of the spotlight continues today.

So far this week the series has identified LB Chad Greenway, P Chris Kluwe and CB Benny Sapp as stars out of the spotlight, highlighting their important contributions to the team’s success in 2009.

To read about today’s star out of the spotlight and how he significantly impacted the Vikings 2009 season, click here

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By Sack Or By Bat-Down, Vikings D-Line Will Be Key

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2010 – 11:22 am

The Vikings last week faced a Dallas Cowboys team that finished the regular season ranked as the NFL’s 6th best passing offense, a unit that included the NFC’s leading receiver in Miles Austin and a versatile TE in Jason Witten who registered 94 receptions on the season.

Thanks to a fierce pass rush from the Vikings 4 down linemen – including 3.0 sacks from DE Ray Edwards – the Vikings were able to drop 7 defenders in coverage for much of the game. This tactic allowed the Vikings LBs and secondary to cover up QB Tony Romo’s options for much of the game and it ultimately resulted in just 156 net yards of passing for the Cowboys, their lowest output since Week 11 at Washington and their 3rd lowest output of the entire season.

Along with the Vikings defensive line, other players had key roles in the Vikings ability to shutdown the Dallas passing attack. LB Ben Leber had an INT, CB Benny Sapp played well on the outside while Antoine Winfield handled nickel duties superbly and 2nd-year S Tyrell Johnson logged a solid performance.

“Yeah, I didn’t see any pauses,” Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress said of Johnson. “I thought he was pretty fluid. He knew what he was seeing and did a great job of reacting on time. He played a pretty good football game.”

The Vikings face a similar challenge this weekend, although the New Orleans Saints represent a taller task. QB Drew Brees has guided the NFL’s 4th-rated pass offense beautifully, leading the NFL in TD passes during the regular season with 34 and also registering a league-high passer rating of 109.6.

“He knows that offense like the back of his hand,” Childress said of the New Orleans QB. “It is hard to catch him in the pocket and he usually hits his back foot and lets the ball go. He is passionate about what he does. He understands that offense’s movements. He is an anticipatory thrower.”

Adding to the challenge for Minnesota is that they’ll be playing on the road instead of at Mall of America Field, where a raucous home crowd provides an adverse environment for opposing offenses.

It will be key for the Vikings to apply pressure to Brees with their 4 down linemen because this will allow them to drop 7 in coverage, just as they did against the Dallas. And even if the Vikings defensive line can’t get to Brees  for sacks – Brees was sacked just 20 times during the regular season, 14 fewer times than Brett Favre – it’s will be vital for them to get their hands in passing lanes. The Vikings did lead the league in sacks during the regular season with 48, but the defensive line also batted down 17 passes.

One way or another, whether by sacking Brees or batting down his passes, the Vikings defensive line must once again be a factor if the Vikings are going to slow down another productive passing attack.

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Vikings Defense Cools Cowboys Offense

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 18, 2010 – 6:49 am

The Dallas Cowboys came into Sunday’s Divisional Round Playoff game as one of the hottest teams in the NFL with one of the most explosive offenses in the NFL.

In their 2 previous games heading into Sunday’s contest, Dallas had scored 58 points against the Philadelphia Eagles. And in their last 4 games, the Cowboys averaged 433.0 yards and 24.8 points per contest.

With a confident and in-rhythm QB – Tony Romo – playing behind a massive offensive line and with a talented group of pass-catchers, Dallas was poised to continue their hot streak against the Vikings and setup a rematch with the New Orleans Saints, the very team they beat back on December 19 to begin their 4-game winning streak.

But then something happened. And that something was the Vikings defense, a unit that put on a stunning performance in holding the explosive Cowboys to just 3 points and only 248 net yards of offense. With the Vikings offense matching the excellence of the defense, Sunday’s game turned into a lopsided affair – a 34-3 Vikings victory.

“We knew it was going to be a battle all four quarters, and for the most part it was,” LB Ben Leber said immediately after the game. “I never imagined it would be this lopsided.  You have to give a lot of credit to their offense.  They came in a high-powered offense, explosive.  We thought it was going to be a big-time dogfight, and we did a good job holding them to three points.

So what was the key to the Vikings defensive dominance? There were probably a number of factors, beginning with the Vikings ability to pressure Romo. The Cowboys QB was sacked 6 times and hurried or hit on many more occasions.

Another reason, though, was the Vikings ability to limit Dallas’ explosive plays. The Vikings definition of an explosive play is a run of 12+yards and a pass of 16+ yards. The Cowboys, one of the NFL’s most explosive teams over the past month, had just 3 explosive plays on Sunday (2 passes, 1 run).

Key in the defense’s ability to limit Dallas explosiveness was sound coverage and technique, as well as solid tackling.

“You obviously never want to have guys get behind the coverage and make big plays,” Leber explained, “but secondly, we did a good job of keeping everything in front of us.  We did a good job of tackling and not having many explosive plays against us.  The game plan worked, and we executed pretty well.”

Leber makes a good point. Players on the field did their job by executing the scheme and making plays. But there’s a reason coaches put in so much time during the week.

“That’s a credit to (defensive coordinator) Leslie Frazier and the whole defensive coaching staff,” Vikings CB Benny Sapp said. “They came in this week and were real tough on us. They knew Dallas was a big-play team. We wanted to erase that off the field today, and that’s what we did.”

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Vikings Secondary Will Be Tested Tonight

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 6, 2009 – 6:18 pm

All of the speculation can now go away – both the Vikings and Cardinals have submitted their list of inactive players. After all the dust settled, Cardinals QB Kurt Warner was active and will start tonight while the Vikings will once again be without CB Antoine Winfield.

As a result, the Vikings secondary will be further challenged tonight as they face an explosive offense that features an accurate and experienced QB (Warner) and a talented bunch of receivers, including Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. and Anquan Boldin.

With Winfield out of the game and given the Cardinals propensity to spread out their offense, the Vikings secondary depth will be tested tonight. Fortunately CB Benny Sapp, who was listed on the injury report this week, will be able to play. He’ll team with CBs Asher Allen and Karl Paymah to fill in for Winfield, something this trio of players has done well since Winfield has been out of the lineup.

But I also expect to see more of S Husain Abdullah. He is listed as a safety but Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress has mentioned in the past that he trains at CB as well. If the Cardinals go to a lot of multiple-receiver sets, Abdullah could be tabbed to join some combination of CBs Cedric Griffin, Allen, Paymah and Sapp along with safeties Tyrell Johnson and Madieu Williams.

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Hutchinson Added To Injury Report; Sapp Practices

Posted by Mike Wobschall on December 3, 2009 – 3:27 pm

The Vikings and Cardinals have released their Thursday injury reports. And there are a couple of things to report.

All-Pro G Steve Hutchinson was added to the report and is listed with a shoulder ailment. He was a limited participant today. The only other change for the Vikings on Thursday is that Benny Sap (thumb/ribs) was limited after sitting out on Wednesday.

There were no other changes on the report.

For the Cardinals, there were no changes to their report from Wednesday’s information.

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Opportunity Knocked For Vikings DBs

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 24, 2009 – 4:55 pm

Throughout the offseason and training camp, one position battle that was constantly analyzed was the nickel back/3rd corner position. The Vikings drafted Asher Allen in the 3rd round, signed Karl Paymah during free agency and brought veteran Benny Sapp back after he played well in 2008.

Prevailing thought was that one of those 3 players would win the job and would be the beneficiary of the vast majority of the playing time alongside starters Cedric Griffin and Antoine Winfield, relegating the other 2 players to either inactive duty and/or primarily special teams responsibility.

Well, as is often the case with prevailing thought, it turned out to be all wrong. Sapp, by all appearances, “won” that preseason position battle, but he hasn’t been the only member of that trio to contribute to the Vikings this season.

When Winfield went down with a foot injury in Week 6, the trio of DBs stepped in immediately and the Vikings defense actually hasn’t lost a step. Since Week 6, the Vikings rushing defense has climbed from 9th to 3rd, the passing defense has gone from 24th to 21st and the overall defense has gone from 18th to 12th. Perhaps most importantly, the Vikings scoring defense has remained #2 in the NFL.

Depth in the secondary has been key for the Vikings, clearly. Since Winfield’s injury, the trio of Allen, Paymah and Sapp have done more than just weather the storm.

“I think ‘weather’ means that you are just holding on, surviving,” Childress said on Monday. “I think that they have really embraced it. I think that it’s the old ‘opportunity knocks’ and I have seen those guys grab hold of it and really get a chance to compete.”

Childress said he’s noticed good practice habits out of the Vikings reserve DBs and those habits, along with the players’ versatility, have allowed them to fill in more-than-capably for Winfield, who was a Pro Bowler last year.

Allen and Sapp can play both the outside corner position and nickel back. Paymah might be more of an outside corner player, but he, along with Allen and Paymah, can also contribute on special teams.

In addition to their skills, positive practice habits and versatility, Childress also said their attitude has been important to their ability to contribute this season.

“Boy, you see it day in and day out,” Childress commented. “I think they just embraced it. Where Asher used to be sitting in my office, he used to be one of those eight guys (that was inactive on game day). He was going to be a guy that was down and he was down about being down, but I just promised him that somewhere along the line opportunity is going to knock.

“If you feel like you are getting in the co-pilot seat, if you feel like you are kind of riding along and you don’t keep that mental edge, you are going to snooze at the wrong time and somebody is going to say ‘you’re in.’ I think those guys have done a really good job of attacking that thing.”

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Winfield Not Playing Today; Sapp To Start

Posted by Mike Wobschall on November 22, 2009 – 10:44 am

The Vikings released their list of inactive players for today’s tilt against the Seahawks and for the 4th straight game CB Antoine Winfield will not suit up.

Winfield is of course dealing with a foot injury that he suffered in Week 6 against Baltimore and it appeared he had a decent chance at playing today after practicing the last 2 weeks. But, the Vikings have decided to give him 1 more weekend off and now it looks as if #26 will make his return next week for a big divisional showdown with Chicago.

CB Benny Sapp will start in Winfield’s absence again and both Asher Allen and Karl Paymah will also see extended time again. Paymah was also dealing with an injury this week and was listed as questionable on Friday, but he’ll suit up as part of the committee to replace Winfield.

Considering how important Winfield is to the Vikings defense because of his cover skills and tackling ability, this trio of CBs listed above have done a nice job in Winfield’s stead. They will be tested today, however, because the Seahawks have Matt Hasselbeck at QB and a talented corps of receivers that include TE John Carlson and WRs Deion Branch, Nate Burleson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Hasselbeck has been to the Pro Bowl and his receivers this year rank 3rd in the NFL in % of receiving yards coming after the catch (54.2%).

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Frazier Says Sapp Fits In Nicely With Vikings Defense

Posted by Mike Wobschall on October 15, 2009 – 2:02 pm

One of the most talked about position battles throughout the offseason and training camp was the nickel back spot. It was actually more of a 3rd CB spot because starting CB Antoine Winfield also takes on nickel back responsibilities from time-to-time. But the main idea was to find a 3rd corner .

In his 2nd year with the Vikings, 6-year veteran Benny Sapp won the job as the Vikings 3rd corner coming out of the preseason and Vikings assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier gave Sapp a positive review when asked about him during his Thursday press conference.

“That first season we got him, he kind of struggled with exactly what we wanted from him and how we wanted him to respond in certain situations,” Frazier explained. “But today Benny has really become the ideal nickel back. He’s done a great job for us both in coverage and he does a great job in run support. And he understands situations in games. He’s really come a long way.”

It’s important to have 3 solid and reliable CBs in the NFL because defenses are often forced to have all 3 on the field at once to cover receivers. For the Vikings, versatility is also a necessary trait for the 3rd corner because Frazier likes to mix Winfield into nickel roles as well, which means the Vikings 3rd corner might be playing outside while Winfield slides inside on occasion. In addition, with the Vikings pride themselves on being the #1 unit against the run, so Frazier also demands that his nickel back be a solid supporter in the run game.

“You’re trying to find a guy who has some versatility…the ability to be able to play in the slot, and cover people, usually the third best receiver on the team but sometime it’s the team’s top receiver,” Frazier said. “But also, for us, being able to tackle. He has to be a guy who can respond in run situations and be a part of our run fits as well.”

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3rd CB Spot Still Up in the Air

Posted by Mike Wobschall on August 25, 2009 – 5:45 pm

Heading into training camp, one position battle receiving a fair amount of attention was the 3rd CB/nickel back position. It’s a position battle with several dynamics and, according to Vikings assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, it’s a position battle still up in the air.

“It’s still a very competitive spot,” Frazier responded when asked about the nickel back position. “We have familiarity with Antoine Winfield because he’s done it before and had a lot of success. The fact that Benny (Sapp) has also played the nickel position gives us some leeway there. But we’re still trying to ascertain where Asher Allen and Karl Paymah are. The fact that Marcus McCauley wasn’t able to play this past week threw a wrench in things, so now we get him back to become part of the evaluation process. It’s still up in the air to a degree.”

As Frazier mentioned, the extra dynamic at play in the nickel back competition is that the veteran Winfield has shown he has the skill set to excel in that role.

“He has made a ton of plays in that nickel spot, a la Ronde Barber in Tampa,” Frazier explained when asked if he would consider moving Winfield inside to play the nickel. “Just because of how effective he is in the run and the pass and matching up against some of the other teams third wide receiver. Either way he has been so effective for us both outside and inside. So we can handle it either way.”

When Winfield is positioned as the nickel back (covering the slot receiver on the inside), it opens up a spot at an outside CB position. As a result, the winner of the 3rd CB position needs to show an ability to play both inside (as a possible nickel back) and outside (as a possible CB while Winfield plays the nickel).

“Ben Sapp is doing a good job for us,” Frazier said. “Asher Allen has come in and done a great job. We know Antoine Winfield can do it if he has to and Karl Paymah made some good plays the other day as a third corner. We’re still in the position where we’re evaluating and deciding who’s going to be that third corner. The way it’s going right now is great for us. They’re all playing so well that whoever wins that spot should make us better.”

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Analyzing Position Battles – Nickel Back

Posted by Mike Wobschall on July 20, 2009 – 12:09 pm

Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin have the starting CB positions on lock down (barring injury, knock on wood). But a defense always has more than 2 starting-caliber CBs on the roster. In fact, many plays require a defense to have 3 or more solid CBs on the field at a time.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the Vikings nickel back situation. This will be a hotly-contested training camp battle, and one that will be vital to any success the Vikings defense will have this season.

We’ll begin with Marcus McCauley. His time with the Vikings so far has been a bit tumultuous. He was a 3rd round pick in 2007 and had a nice rookie season, but then inconsistent play and injuries derailed him a bit last year. But perhaps things are looking up for him now. With Winfield absent during OTAs and minicamps this offseason, McCauley took most of the 1st team reps. This doesn’t mean he’s locked the job down or is even a favorite, but it does make sense to note who filled in for a starter.

There are 3 other serious contenders for this job. They are Benny Sapp, Karl Paymah and Asher Allen. The Vikings coaching staff liked enough of what they saw from Sapp last year to bring him back this year. He was re-signed this past offseason. Sapp was an interception machine during training camp a year ago, and a similar performance this year in training camp may be enough to give him the nickel job full-time. Paymah was brought in from Denver as a free agent. He has good speed, lots of special teams experience and a big desire to transcend the role of a special teams player and become a regular contributor on defense. Allen was a 3rd round draft pick this year and was a standout during his time at the University of Georgia. He doesn’t have protoypical Cover 2 CB size, but neither does Antoine Winfield.

Lastly, we must mention Charles Gordon, who is recovering from a serious ankle injury, as well as Marcus Walker, who is one of a few young players who will compete hard to make the Vikings roster. Gordon fulfilled multiple roles for the Vikings last season before his injury. Aside from being the team’s 3rd CB, he also contributed in the return game. If he can get back to his normal playing ability after the injury, then he’s the favorite for the nickel job. But at this point there’s no guarantee that’ll happen.

Prediction: This position battle won’t be determined until late in the preseason, but right now I’m thinking Sapp and Allen will be in the mix as the regular season approaches.

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