Coordinator knows Vikings' limits

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2011 - 2:07 AM

Bill Musgrave will play to his team's strengths, which means running the ball and throwing short passes.

Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave might be just what the Vikings' unsettled offensive line needs as it baby steps its way to San Diego with the weight of a season on its shoulders.

As a man who doesn't jam square pegs into round holes, Musgrave tailors his offense to fit his players, not vice versa. He'll accentuate his strengths, but, more importantly, he won't overly expose his weaknesses, which at the moment is an offensive line that has a shaky new left tackle and an ongoing competition at right guard, among other question marks lingering from a poor showing in 2010.

Therefore, it's no coincidence that Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb has thrown just one deep pass in 31 snaps through two preseason games. Nor should anyone be surprised that McNabb targeted his receivers only two times in eight pass attempts in last Saturday's 20-7 victory at Seattle.

Musgrave's first unit has produced as many punts as points (three) in four possessions. But McNabb has looked surprisingly comfortable and, besides, it's still way too early to pass judgement or compare this offense to the painfully predictable attack that former Vikings coach Brad Childress started out with in 2006.

Musgrave's most important test of the preseason doesn't come until Saturday night, when the Vikings return to the Metrodome to play the Dallas Cowboys. It's the third preseason game, which traditionally is the most important one of the preseason. Starters will play into the third quarter and teams tailor a game plan to fit their opponent for the only time in the preseason.

Once again, Musgrave won't have starting tight end Visanthe Shiancoe (hamstring). But no Viking has had a better camp than rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. He and McNabb are developing a nice comfort level, which will help Musgrave treat this game like a dress rehearsal for the Sept. 11 season opener at San Diego.

Don't expect to be wowed by big plays. This is a knockoff of the Atlanta Falcons' ball-control offense, sans a No. 1 receiver like Roddy White. It's built around running back Adrian Peterson and relies mainly on short to intermediate passes to tight ends and running backs.

"What we're doing is getting back to our identity," receiver Percy Harvin said. "Our identity is 28 [Adrian Peterson] dominating in the running game and the rest of us complementing him by making a few plays down the field."

For a sneak peak at how the Vikings hope to play offense, look what the Falcons did while going 13-3 during the 2010 regular season. Musgrave spent the past three seasons working as quarterbacks coach under Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

A year ago, the Falcons set a team record for first downs (353) while quarterback Matt Ryan established franchise records for completions (357) and completion percentage (60.8). The Falcons also ranked third in the NFL in time of possession (32:15 a game).

Since 2008, the Falcons are second in the league with 45 touchdown drives of 10 or more plays. All of these stats mesh with the way Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, a former defensive coordinator, wants his offense to play.

"I like what they did in Atlanta," Frazier said. "The success they had with a young quarterback, utilizing the tight ends, being able to run the football, understanding how important it is to throw the football down the field and give you multiple looks."

Frazier also liked Musgrave because he was flexible and receptive to player input. Part of that flexibility is knowing when and how to help a particular unit that's weak or needs time to get settled.

"You're just trying to get the right guys that can execute your offense," Frazier said. "If you have to tailor some things because of their needs or inadequacies, then you get that done."

Musgrave won't throw his line under the proverbial bus.

"We've had a number of blitz drills, and I think we've got a lot of confidence in our O-linemen," he said. "They do a nice job individually, but an O-line is really judged collectively. The more they get to work together, the better off we'll be."

Until then, don't expect Musgrave to ask the offensive line to run before it can walk.

Mark Craig • mcraig@startribune.com

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