Vikings defense limiting production of (most) rival stars

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 24, 2012 - 6:58 AM

The Vikings have stopped opponents' big-play threats in the games they've won. They'll face another on Thursday night.

Frank Gore, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson have amassed 15 Pro Bowls, 10 All-Pro selections and exactly zero touchdowns against a Vikings defense that has spent the past seven weeks extinguishing all superstars not named Robert Griffin III.

"The essence of game-planning is knowing what makes the engine go," linebacker Erin Henderson said. "You identify the player who is their big-play threat. Then you figure out a way to somehow, some way take him out of the game."

On the ground, Jones-Drew, Gore and Chris Johnson each were held to fewer than 78 yards. Heck, the latter two combined for only 87.

Meanwhile, through the air, Calvin Johnson and Fitzgerald each were limited to fewer than 55 yards and six catches. Neither was their team's leading receiver against the Vikings.

"Each game is unique," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "What I take joy in is seeing the coaching staff say, 'OK, we're going to shut down Gore or Johnson' and then guys buy into the plan and take pride in what the coaching staff has asked them to do. We're seeing that."

Williams might give up more yards to a team's weaker area so that he can limit big plays from a team's strength. That partly explains how Arizona's former No. 3 running back, LaRod Stephens-Howling, ended up with 104 yards rushing while Fitzgerald, a four-time All-Pro, finished with four catches for 29 yards.

"You're always trying to ... make a team go somewhere they don't want to go," coach Leslie Frazier said. "We've done some good things when we've had to do that."

Two weeks after Jones-Drew ran for 77 yards against the Vikings, he went for 177 and a touchdown in a victory at Indianapolis. Two weeks before Gore was held to 63 yards at Mall of America Field, he ran for 112 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries (7.0) in a victory at Lambeau Field. And two weeks after Chris Johnson mustered a mere 24 yards on 15 carries, he exploded for 185 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries in a win at Buffalo.

In the two weeks before he played the Vikings, Fitzgerald had a combined 14 catches for 185 yards and a touchdown. And a week before the Vikings held Calvin Johnson to 54 yards on five catches, he caught 10 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown at Tennessee.

"When we played Calvin in Detroit, obviously that was a week where you looked at one guy and said, 'If we can stop this guy, we're going to limit what they'll be able to do,' " linebacker Chad Greenway said. "It was pretty clear-cut."

Thursday night at Mall of America Field, the Vikings play the 2-4 Buccaneers and yet another superstar performer, Vincent Jackson. The 6-5, 230-pound receiver, signed as a free agent from San Diego this past offseason, caught seven passes for 216 yards and a touchdown in Sunday's loss to the Saints. The yardage total is the second-highest recorded in the league this season.

"We have a short week, but we're going to need sound 83 awareness,' " said middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, referring to Jackson's jersey number. "By the time we get to kickoff, we must know all the plays he likes, the formations he likes. We have to know everything about him."

Complicating matters is the fact Jackson isn't the Bucs' only deep threat. He's third in the NFL is average yards per catch (21.7), but the receiver on the other side, Mike Williams, is fourth (19.4). Jackson ranks second in the league with 10 catches of 20 yards or more. Williams is tied for 12th with six.

"They do as good a job as anyone in terms of going up and getting the football when your back is to the ball or when you're in good position," said Alan Williams, whose defense ranks ninth overall and sixth in points allowed. "We just have to play good sound football and limit the number of big plays they get. They've gotten them on everybody."

Jackson doesn't sound as though he's worried if the Vikings' game plan is centered on him.

"We're very balanced," he said. "We're not out there worrying about one guy's statistics. Whoever gets the best matchup, or whatever they do, that's what we're going to do."

Or at least try to.


    7:20 p.m. Thursday vs. Tampa Bay • 

    Mall of America Field • TV: NFL Network, Ch. 11 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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