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Cautious optimism for the Purple - Also, fear and trembling (10/27/2004)
By John Edstrom

Well fans, the Vikes are now 5-1 and, unlike last year, elicit a cautious optimism rather than Super Bowl fever. They have not blown away an opponent yet, but have managed to beat the teams they should, whether at home or away, and despite bad breaks and the fourth quarter adversity that put this team into panic and rout these last few years. Many are hailing a defensive turn around against the Titans; not I. What kept Sunday's game from being another cliff hanger were breaks that went in the Vikes favor and an opponent that made plenty of mistakes on offense.

What stopped Tennessee was missed and dropped passes, and stupid and untimely penalties, much more so than a somewhat improved performance by the Vikes in pass rush and pass defense. I thought the Vikes did play better defense, well enough to hold last week's opponent to 3-6 less points, real, if not astounding progress. Review the tape of Sunday's game and you will find that the Titan's QB tossed three INTs in place of three great passes, all the difference in the world, and maybe the difference in that game. The Vikes blitzed far more Sunday than previously, and still did not get overwhelming pressure on the opposing QB. They still can't defend the slant pass, and are likely to give up third and long more often than not.

But it would be foolish to carp and complain at a win, particularly with the schedule coming, which may provide legitimate cause for anguish among fans of the Purple. The Vikes have beaten the opponents they should, on the road, and never mind how ugly. They should be about a four point favorite at home against the Giants next week, and if their defense continues to make incremental improvements, will cover that spread easily. Legitimate hope for such improvement exists, particularly at in the linebacking corps where it appears that Raonall Smith may emerge as a starter over the often injured Chris Claiborne, who has played well when healthy, not often. Smith was widely considered a reach as a second round pick two years ago not because he lacked talent, but because it seemed unlikely that he could withstand the standard NFL pounding. The nays had it until this season, when his speed and athleticism have become an enormous asset that had been practically written off. His kind of range in pass coverage is one of the few substitutes for a good pass rush, witness his goal line INT.

The standard story line for Sunday was the ability of a hobbled Vikes offense to function without Randy Moss, but I thought the drop off had more to do with the offensive line, which allowed much more pressure on Culpepper and did not block all that well for the run. The Purple failed often to pick up the blitz, Big McKinnie had a bad day, and Chris Liwienski committed three holding penalties, two on run plays! Randy Moss can fly over the field like Spiderman and not make up for that. It was disappointing to see the Vikes fail to put the game out of reach in the second half, with all the squandered opportunities to score at least field goals.

Given last year's collapse against inferior opponents in the latter half of the season, the Vikes have done well this year to compile the present 5-1 record. But the next set of games against the Giants, Colts, Packers, Lions, and Jaguars is going to require a stepped-up performance if the Vikes are to proceed on to the playoffs. They will need more pass rush and better pass defense from linebackers and defensive backs to maintain their lead through this stretch, and their offensive line play can't drop off either.  


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