As a member of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears, Leslie Frazier learned what a top-flight running game can mean not only to an offense but a defense as well. Frazier watched Hall of Famer Walter Payton rush for 1,551 yards in the regular season and learned to appreciate what Payton's ability to run the ball meant to a Chicago defense that dominated opponents.
"They did a great job of not leaving our defense on the field for long stretches," said Frazier, a starting cornerback on that 15-1 squad. "They'd get the football and control the clock. We'd go out, we'd get some three-and-outs and we weren't right back on the field. I think that really matters -- if you can control the clock with the running game and allow your defense to get some rest and come back and be fresh when they walk on the football field."
Now in his first year as Vikings defensive coordinator, Frazier is hoping the running back tandem of Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson can not only help the team improve on last year's 6-10 finish but also keep his defense fresh.
Members of the defense certainly see the upside to controlling the ball by keeping it on the ground. Especially the veterans -- seven of the starters have played five or more NFL seasons, and nose tackle Pat Williams and safety Darren Sharper both are entering their 11th year.
"That's big, because the controlling of plays and time of possession allows us to sit on the sideline and get rested," Sharper said. "We go back out, get a three-and-out -- because we have energy and we're flying around -- and we get the football back. Then they drive the ball for another eight minutes. It shortens the game and does not allow opposing offenses to get a lot of opportunities to attack you."
Sharper was part of several Green Bay teams that, like the Vikings, ran the West Coast offense and had success on the ground with Ahman Green carrying the football. In Sharper's final four years with the Packers (2001-04), Green rushed for more than 1,000 yards each season and the team won three NFC North titles. Green Bay finished second in 2001 with a 12-4 record.
"Ahman would tote that thing, and our rushing attack was big," Sharper said. "I expect it to be the same way here."
This is not to say a good ground game assures success for a defense. Of the teams that finished in the top 10 in rushing last season, only three also finished in the top 10 in total defense: San Diego (the No. 2 rushing attack and No. 10 in defense), Jacksonville (No. 3 and No. 2) and Pittsburgh (No. 10 and No. 9).
The Chargers' rushing attack, of course, is led by Pro Bowl back LaDainian Tomlinson. Vikings linebacker Ben Leber played for San Diego, spending four years watching Tomlinson frustrate opponents.
"It's huge," Leber said of having an effective run game. "As a team you always talk about clock management, and what better way for clock management for an offense than to have two potent running backs that can grind the ball down the field, run it up the middle on the edges and really keep defenses on their heels. As a defense, that's great.
"As much as we want to be on the field performing, it's all about winning and putting points on the board. If the offense can sit there and grind out a few minutes every quarter just running the ball and wearing out their defense, it's going to be better for us as a team."
Frazier also is glad that the Taylor-Peterson combination, or "changeup" as coach Brad Childress likes to call the pairing, is going to be somebody else's problem.
"They will cause headaches for teams," Frazier said. "They are different-style runners. That really complicates things for a defense. If you've got two guys that are similar, you kind of don't see a difference in the two and you just put your game plan together accordingly. But with this tandem, it's a lot different. They bring something different to the table. So as a defensive coach, you've got to prepare for the both of them a little bit differently, and that puts a strain on your preparation and on your players as well as they prepare for that team."