Vikings vs. Bengals

On the bright side, Chris Kluwe continued to punt well. The Vikings actually downed two punts inside the twenty and Kluwe proved he could kick outdoors, consistently getting excellent hangtime.

And then on the other side…

Well, the offensive line was not absolutely abysmal. They opened up so holes for the ground game and provided Daunte Culpepper with some time to throw. Not great, but a hell of an improvement over the season opener against the Bucaneers

Michael Bennett looked pretty good darting though lines, making some good cuts, gaining positive yards. Until he dropped an easy screen pass that would’ve gone for at least ten yards. Until he fumbled. Twice.

Though Daunte had more time to thow on Sunday, he looked antsy and anxious in the pocket. Flustered. He looked as though he didn’t trust his line, even though he had reasonable time to throw. He overthrew Nate Burleson: interception. He tossed what appeared to be a screen pass to…well, nobody knows: interception. Five in all. And I don’t think we can blame them on the offensive line this time. Daunte had two horrible games in a row.

Though Nate Burleson couldn’t have caught the high pass he tipped to a defender, he’s been troublingly inconsistent in making the catches he should catch. Travis Taylor, in fact, is the only receiver who has made all the catches he’s supposed to make.

It would hardly be surprising if coaching isn’t part of the problem; or, rather, coaches overloaded. Offensive coordinator Steve Loney has not only the responsiblities of a coordinator but also the burden of coaching the offensive line and calling the plays on gameday. That’s a lot to ask of anyone and it wouldn’t surprise me if some things were falling through the cracks as a result. So, perhaps its a good idea for head coach Mike Tice to take over the playcalling duties. But the team is stretched so thin coachwise, you gotta wonder if Tice adds to his responsibilities, something else will inevitably break. This is the cost of paying your coaches dirt.

I would never have thought that the defense would be so horrible after they had a decent day in the opener largely containing Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. Or after an interception return for a touchdown by Darren Sharper. Or Fred Smoot racing to the sideline to pick off a Griese pass that was intended to be thrown away. You can’t blame their performance against the Bengals on second-year middle linebacker Rod Davis starting for Sam Cowart or Carson Palmer picking on Brian Williams. When a team racks up more that 500 yards and scores 37 points against you, it’s a team-wide failure.

I’m absolutely mystified at the utter collapse because I don’t think the talent on the team is that bad.

Vikings vs. Bengals Preview

The absolutely essential element for the Vikings to beat the Bengals today will the play of the offensive line. If the turn in a perfomance similar to that they did against the Bucs, we’re looking at an 0-2 start to this season. If they can pull it together and play just an average game, it should open up the running game and, in turn, open up the passing game.

The Vikings will need to control the ball enough on offense to keep the defense from being on the field for as long as they were last week. The Vikings defense should be solid, but they were on the field far too long last week. Getting a credible running game going should help with that as well as slow down the pass rush and give Daunte some time to find receivers.

Look for the Vikings to pick on rookie middle linebacker Odell Thurman who, though he notched eight tackels last week, and picked off a pass, is still a rookie and should be tested. The Browns did on a crossing route to receiver Frisman Jackson that ended as a 68 yard touchdown.

The Bengals are an up-and-coming team that many predict will go beyond their 8-8 record of the past two seasons. Quarterback Carson Palmer is entering his third season and seems to have figured out how to play the position in the latter half of last year. He’s got two superb weapons to get the ball to in running back Rudi Johnson and standout wide receiver Chad Johnson.

On defense, the Vikings will need to stop Bengals running back Rudi Johnson, a bruiser they fed the ball to 26 of the 32 times they ran the ball last week against the Browns. Johnson gained 126 yards but his longest gain was for only 13 yards, so he’ll bite of chunks of two, three, five yards and they’ll keep feeding it to him in order to control the clock and set up the play action pass. The team averaged 117 yards a game last year and ranked 17th in the league in rushing.

Thier offensive line retuns intact and healthy from last season, where they solidified as a unit.

The Vikings did a good job of containing a very good back last week in Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, who ran for 148 yards on 27 carries but 71 yards came on his touchdown run that sealed the game. Prior to that, the Vikings had given up only 2.5 yards per carry on 30 attempts.

If the O-line plays well, the Vikings should win this game.

Ignorant Sportswriters – Life Without Randy Moss

During the first, what?–I don’t even know anymore–Monday Night Football? Thursday Night Football?  game, John Madden and Al Michaels, basically dismissed the Vikings as a division contender simply because they’d traded away Randy Moss.

Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that Madden and Michaels have not offered a genuinely insightful observation on the game of football since the mid-eighties. Let’s be charitable and instead hone in on what are the essential elements for gridiron success in the NFL. The fact is, you can have the best recievers in the NFL and still lose if your quarterback is merely average or sucks. I think the Raiders will prove my point by the end of the year: Randy will tear up the league again but Kerry Collins will keep them from advancing deep into the playoffs, if they play in the post-season at all. But you can win with merely decent receivers if you’ve got an outstanding quarterback. The Eagles made it to the Super Bowl with Donovan McNabb at the helm but without their best–and one of the league’s best–receiver, Terrell Owens.

Madden and Michaels’ comments about the Vikings chances sans Moss is simply a result of their laziness. Sadly, I’ve come to expect that from the duo.

It’s more disappointing when you find the same laziness in a writer you’ve come to respect. Thus is the case with The Sporting NewsDan Pompei. I really do like his writing and have always thought he was fairly insightful, until I read his most recent column.

Based on the Vikings’ performance against Tampa Bay, Pompei devotes a whole column on behalf of his argument that the Vikes’ offense will struggle mightily without Moss because teams will no longer have to gameplan specifically for the threat that Randy presented.

That’s all true enough but Pompei’s conclusions are based on the Tampa Bay game and nowhere in his column does he mention the atrocious play of the offensive line as a reason the Vikes’ offense struggled so badly.

It makes me wonder if he watched the game at all because any reasonable person who saw that game could not walk away from it without lamenting the line play. That was the source of all the Vikings’ troubles last Sunday, and Pompei seems oblivious to that fact.

And that gets to the heart of my problem with sports journalists working for a national medium: It is impossible for them to focus on one team, and as a result, their ignorance of that team is glaring. You’d think The Sporting News would know better, though, because they’re smart enough to use local writers for their weekly team-specific blurbs in their division breakdowns: The Star Tribune‘s Kevin Seifert covers the Vikings, for example.

Scouting – Cincinnati Bengals News

Here are some links for you to read up on this week’s opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals:

The Offensive Line Was The Problem

It was odd that most of the stories on the game on Monday barely mentioned the horrible play of the Vikings offensive line during their 24-13 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On Tuesday, the stories were all about the offensive line after coach Mike Tice deemed their play "atrocious."

Monday, it was all about Daunte Culpepper’s horrible game and how the running backs couldn’t get anything going and yet it took another day to figure out the blame for the loss rested squarely on the shoulders of McKinney, Liwienski, Withrow, Johnson, and Rosenthal? Excuse me, but from my vantage point on the fifty yard line, it was obvious that Corey Withrow and Marcus Johnson particuarly were having their asses handed to them.

And while you can dismiss Johnson’s bad day to the fact that he was a rookie lining up against Booger McFarland but Withrow was getting his butt kicked by none other than our man, Chris Hovan. Ski, of Best Bucs Blog, wondered why I hate Hovan. I don’t hate him and I hope he does well for the Bucs. But: Hovan’s greatest production during the past two years was in the form of complaints and excuses for his poor play. On Sunday, he looked like the All Pro player of 2001/2002 who was quick off the line and disruptive in the backfield. Time will tell, but my guess is that Hovan hasn’t returned to form so much as Withrow played horribly.

Marcus Johnson was just getting bull rushed or tossed aside by McFarland, and Johnson had 21 pounds on the Bucs tackle.

I knew we’d miss Matt Birk, but I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was on Sunday. Let’s hope that Melvin Fowler can pick up the offense very quickly, cause if Withrow can’t adjust (and there’s reason to think he can; he wasn’t this horrible when he started last year), we’re screwed.

Fans sitting next to me were complaining about Daunte Culpepper‘s play; and they were complaining that Mewelde Moore wasn’t playing. It’s true that Daunte had a poor day and made some bad decisions. It’s also true that he and the recievers weren’t on the same page. But most of the reason for the offensive ineptitude was due to the fact that the offensive line could not, for the life of them, pass or run block. 

If you can’t block, don’t expect to be successful on offense. It’s not Michael Bennett’s fault if there are no holes. I will say this about Bennett though: It drives me nuts that he never seems to bounce any runs outside when it’s clear there’s only congestion up the middle. He’ll just run straight into an offensive lineman’s back when he could have gotten three, five, maybe more yards by taking it outside. It’s a skill Ciatrick Fason is adept at.

Despite the fact that the offense had the worst day since I can’t remember, the team had a chance to win this game nearly to the end. Were it not for an imagined pass interference call on Jermain Wiggins and a real block to the back call against Nate Burleson, the Vikings would have won.

The defense did a hell of a job containing a strong, hard-running back who looks like he’ll have a superb NFL career in Carnell "Cadillac" Williams. The only weaknesses in the defense were cornerback Brian Williams getting picked on all day and Griese taking advantage of second-year middle linebacker Rod Davis on the very first play he subbed for Sam Cowart.

For years, I haven’t had the joy of watching a Viking defense consistently string out outside running plays for minimal or minus yards; or getting consistent pressure on the quarterback; or a defensive backfield capable of tight man coverage and opportunistic ball hawking.

Lastly, it looks like we’ve finally solved our punting problems with the preformance rookie kicker Chris Kluwe turned in on Sunday, averaging 54.3 yards on on four kicks with great hangtime. Now if they can just teach him how to kick off.

Vikings Vs. Buccaneers Preview

Despite starting former Viking Chris Hovan at nose tackle, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a tough defense, losing eight games by seven points or less but ranking fifth in the league last year. That tells you the team’s problem is the offense.

Tampa Bay has the unproven Brian Griese at quarterback. Tampa coach Jon Gruden touts Griese’s completion percentage of 69.3 last year, but practically every quarterback’s accuracy was up last year due to the league’s renewed enforcement of defensive contact with receivers after five yards. Gruden runs an extremely complex offense and this will only be Griese’s second year running it. I just don’t buy Griese as a winning quaterback. This is his eight year in the league and he’s yet to prove himself.

The Buccaneers’ offensive line is questionable as well. Griese was sacked 26 times in 11 games last year. The Bucaneers’ depth chart reveals a young offensive line: Left tackle Anthony Davis and right guard Jeb Terry each have two years experience. The veterans on the line include right tackle Kenyatta Walker (5 years experience), center John Wade (8 years), and left guard Matt Stinchcomb (7 years) but Stinchcomb is listed as questionable for today’s game with a lower back injury, so if he doesn’t play, he’ll be replaced by rookie Dan Buenning. Six year pro Anthony Becht is their starting tight end.

Griese has some nice targets to throw to. Michael Clayton had an outstanding season as a rookie last year, catching 80 balls for nearly 1200 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s joined by veterans Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard.

The team took Carnell "Cadillac" Williams with the 5th overall pick in April’s draft and plan to make the most of him. Williams can get to the edge and then accelerate downfield and the Bucs have not run him much inside. He’s untested as a receiver.

Look for the Bucaneers to run the ball a lot, primarily to the outside and force the Vikings young defensive ends to play contain and test our linebackers, particularly E.J. Henderson.

The Vikings will need to contain Williams and put the pressure on the Bucs young offensive line by bringing the heat on passing situations and force Griese to try and beat us. I don’t believe he can.

On offense, the Vikings will need to be patient and take what the Bucs give us. As Vikings offensive coordinator Steve Loney points out, "I think their defense is based in part on the premise that an offense has a hard time marching down the field for 80 yards. You’re going to get impatient and force something, and that’s going to create a turnover or failed third down that causes you to punt. They count on you self-destructing as much as they count on themselves succeeding."

Look for the Vikings to run at Chris Hovan and away from the Bucs standout defensive end, Simeon Rice. Hovan’s fellow tackle, Anthony McFarland had only 9 tackles in 8 games last year. I like the match up of rookie Viking guard Marcus Johnson against Hovan. If the line can create some openings for Michael Bennett and put a block on a linebacker, Bennett could be off to the races.

Also look for the Vikings to create some mismatches with the Bucs linebackers by sending Bennett out for short passes in the flat or running Nate Burleson or Travis Taylor on drag or crossing routes to take advantage of the Bucs’ older and slower linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarels.

Since this will likely be a close game, it is crucial that the Vikings offense remain disciplined and not shoot themselves in the foot with stupid penalties, an aggravating tendency we’ve witnessed all to often in the past.

The difference may well come down to special teams. The Vikings are essentially trying out another punter with untested rookie Chris Kluwe. The Bucs, meanwhile, have former Packer Josh Bidwell, who had a 42.3 yard average last year while putting 23 inside the 20. The Vikings appear solid with former Bear Paul Edinger at kicker while the Bucs have former Giant and Dolphin Matt Bryant at kicker. In his three season in the league, Bryant has made 80% of his field goals and 96.7% of his extra points. The Vikings coverage units will need uncharactersitically tight play and contain kick returner Torrie Cox, who had five returns last year of more than 40 yards.

Kevin Williams’ Arrest

It’s interesting how the media has–or has not–covered Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams‘ arrest August 28 on domestic assault charges.

KFAN was, as they should be, all over the story. They had all the details posted on their website by 7:25 last night. In 570 words, they reported Williams’ arrest along with all the sad details contained in the police report: That a knife was involved; that Williams was drunk; that Williams’ brother was charged with interferring with a 911 call.

The Star Tribune posted a very short piece on it yesterday on their website, and then played catch-up with a fuller story for today’s newspaper. This morning’s paper ran the story on the front page of the sports section, below the fold.

The Strib devotes 658 words to the story and covers pretty much the same details as KFAN had, while adding that Williams’ wife sustained "two lacerations on her left forearm."

In this morning’s Pioneer Press there is no mention of the story on the front page of the sports section and the story itself is stuffed on page 9D. The paper rarely posts breaking stories on their website, so the story didn’t get posted for them until their regular online publishing schedule early this morning.

The Pioneer Press devoted 124 words to report that Williams had been arrested on a misdemeanor domestic charge after an "incident" with his wife. The paper quotes Williams’ lawyer saying, "Any injuries she sustained were sustained in the course of Mr. Williams merely defending himself, which he is legally entitled to do." The penultimate graph mentions that Williams was accompanied by his wife at a Vikings kickoff gala on Thursday. 

The local TV news stations’ websites depend preponderantly on AP stories for content, and AP apparently has not picked up the story. None of the local TV stations’ websites mention the story. Likewise, ESPN’s NFL Wire thus far does not mention the story.

But KSTP and WCCO each devote a half hour every Sunday night to their respective sports shows: SportsWrap for KSTP and Rosen’s Sports Sunday for ‘CCO. And both KSTP and WCCO have sections of their websites devoted to their Vikings coverage. Yet no mention of the story in those sections.

Viking Update, which you’d think would be as all over the story as KFAN was, has not yet mentioned the incident.

It is not a happy story to cover, I understand, but it is a story that deserves coverage. Cynics might point to coporate relationships or reporters protecting their access to explain the lack of coverage but that doesn’t explain KFAN pouncing on the story. First, they are the Vikings’ flagship radio station, so there is clearly a major business relationship and secondly, a large part of their success is the fact that they regularly have Vikings players and coaches on air.

The oddest thing about the coverage is the way the PPress handled the story: Very few details; no mention of the knife; a quote by Williams’ attorney basically saying he’s innocent; and the mention of Williams’ wife accompanying him to the gala, which has the effect of exonorating the Viking. The story feels slanted to me, while the abundance of details in both KFAN’s and the Stib‘s coverage puts the reader in a much better position to determine for themselves what happened.