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Vikings Insider: Porous pass defense is nothing new here

  • Article by: Kevin Seifert
  • Star Tribune
  • November 3, 2007 - 2:34 PM

The last time the San Diego Chargers played in the Metrodome, Jim Harbaugh was the quarterback. Some guy named Jeff Graham was their top receiver, Mike Riley was their coach and the Vikings -- sound familiar? -- couldn't stop the pass.

On Nov. 28, 1999, Harbaugh completed 25 of 39 passes for 404 yards. The week before, Chicago's Jim Miller lit up the Vikings for 422 yards. Although the Vikings' dynamic offense lifted them to victories on both occasions, the two-game stretch signified the start of an organizational epidemic that has continued into this season.

The Vikings finished 1999 with the NFL's 30th-ranked pass defense. They were 28th in 2000, followed by ranks of 18, 29, 26, 29, 21, and 31 in subsequent seasons. Entering today's game against the Chargers, the Vikings are ranked dead last.

The plague has spanned nine seasons, seven defensive coordinators, a dramatic scheme change and 100 percent personnel overhaul.

The Vikings hoped they had found the answer last season when coordinator Mike Tomlin converted to their current Tampa-2 scheme. But since they were exposed by the New England Patriots midway through the year, the Vikings have allowed some of their most gaudy passing numbers in a decade.

In their past 17 games, beginning with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's 372-yard performance, the Vikings have given up an average of 280.6 passing yards per game. Think about that for a moment. If a single quarterback posted that figure over 16 games, he would finish with a 4,500-yard season.

True, that yardage total is skewed by the Vikings' stifling run defense, which at times has given opponents little choice but to go the air. This season, however, new coordinator Leslie Frazier has been unable to slow the snowball and the Vikings' most recent opponents have rendered the run defense moot by passing on nearly three out of every four plays in the first half.

Last week, the Philadelphia Eagles passed on 22 of their first 35 plays. The Dallas Cowboys threw on 32 of their first 41, while the Green Bay Packers went to the air on 20 of their first 26 plays.

Overall, Frazier's defense is giving up a respectable 17.6 points per game (discounting two special teams scores) and has converted four touchdowns of its own, but the pass defense still has played a prominent role in recent defeats.

Dallas, for example, converted its downfield passing attack into a glorified running game. Quarterback Tony Romo completed 31 passes for a relatively modest 277 yards, enabling the Cowboys to keep possession for 36 minutes, 35 seconds of the game.

The Eagles burned them with four passes of more than 30 yards, each setting up a score. The Vikings held them to field goals on two of those drives, but ultimately their offense couldn't close the gap.

Most discouraging about those four plays was that each Eagles receiver simply beat his Vikings counterpart for the ball. Kevin Curtis jumped over cornerback Cedric Griffin for a 33-yard catch, for example. Greg Lewis outran middle linebacker E.J. Henderson and safety Tank Williams down the middle of the field for a 50-yard play.

It's difficult to saddle a defense with a high degree of blame when it is holding opponents to fewer than 20 points per game. Yet frustration has mounted with each passing week (pun intended, sorry), as a soft pass rush and reliable holes in the secondary continue to be exploited.

"We haven't made plays," safety Darren Sharper said. "We've had opportunities. [But] we're allowing guys to catch the ball, run after the catch, go up over us to make plays. We haven't played as well as we need to play."

Sharper has pleaded with Frazier to use him more aggressively and get him into more game-changing positions. Frazier, however, has remained true to a scheme that calls on safeties to be insurance policies in deep coverage than to roam the passing lanes as playmakers.

"This defense has been successful in other places and it will be successful here," Frazier said.

Now that would be historic.

Kevin Seifert • kseifert@startribune.com

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