NOTEBOOK: 3-4 Proving To Be Effective

Sam Cowart

The statistics are showing that the Vikings' best defense might be the 3-4 they have employed in the last two games, and the players and coaches spent Monday explaining why it is so effective. The Vikings also showed more discipline on the field Sunday, while one running back is still limited by injury.

A day after ending an emotionally torturous two weeks on and off the field, the Vikings spent Monday praising the virtues of the 3-4 defense that played a big part in beating the Green Bay Packers.

The Vikings gave up 17 first-half points to the Packers, but in the second half they allowed only three points, a stand that kept the team within striking distance until the offense could finally start scoring points in a come-from-behind win.

"The No. 1 (thing) no matter who you're playing is stop the run and run the ball," said middle linebacker Sam Cowart, a staunch believer in the 3-4 alignment. "If you do those two things, then you're going to have a chance to win the ballgame."

Since switching to the 3-4 as their main defense, the Vikings have been stellar against the run. They entered the Chicago game as the league's worst defense in stopping the run, a fact that was apparent when Atlanta rushed for 285 yards on Oct. 2. Since making the switch, Minnesota has limited Chicago's rushing attack to 95 yards and Green Bay's to 45 yards. Before the Chicago game, the Vikings were allowing an average of 178 yards rushing per game.

"I just think the 3-4 is easier for off-the-ball linebacker guys. … The 4-3, it's like a race to the ball, then the running back cuts back. Versus the 3-4, you're not running to the ball because we're already lined up. You've got two outside backers where the edge is already set, two inside guys, a nose and two safeties that are facing the ball," Cowart said. "In a 3-4, when teams run all that motion, you just sit. Nothing changes. It's mirrored on both sides."

Head coach Mike Tice said that defense simply allows faster players to get on the field and make plays in the offensive backfield. The Packers had four runs for negative yardage.

"I think because of the type of players we have, we are starting to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage," Tice said. "It is a faster defense because you have four linebackers on the field and obviously they are faster players. Even though we mixed the dog (linebacker blitzing) in pretty well (against Green Bay), even on the plays when they are not dogging we still have guys around the quarterback and in the backfield on the runs. That is because that type of defense is a faster defense than a 4-3."

Three players seem to have made a big difference in running the 3-4. Like Cowart, both linebacker Keith Newman and nose tackle Pat Williams are extremely familiar with the 3-4 defense and the way defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell likes to run it. All three of them played under Cottrell in Buffalo, and Cowart followed him to the New York Jets.

Newman made his first start of the season when the Vikings made the switch to the 3-4 against Chicago.

"I don't know if there is any blocker in the world who can block him one-on-one or whether it's just out there making plays or knocking guys around," safety Darren Sharper said of Newman. "When they run the football, he's a guy you've got to put on the field because he's tough and makes big plays for you."

The 3-4 becomes a much more difficult proposition without a big nose tackle like the Vikings possess in Williams, who joined the team as their first free-agent signing in March.

Cowart said teams that run the 3-4 effectively all have big nose tackles, making Williams a vital part of the alignment.

"We'd have to make some moves if something was to happen to him," Cowart said. "We'd have to tilt some guys, not heads-up (on the center), just tilt them. That's what we did in New York last year. We didn't have a big, dominant nose so we just tilted the guys. You get the same effect."

But Williams has displayed an innate ability to penetrate into the offensive backfield and either make a tackle-for-loss or string out a running play to allow the linebackers to make the tackle. In the last two games, Williams has 11 tackles, very solid numbers for his position.

The Vikings originally made the switch because of the loss of defensive ends Kenechi Udeze and Spencer Johnson to injuries before the Chicago game. With Johnson expected to return to the lineup this Sunday in Carolina, the Vikings' success with the 3-4 might dictate they stay with that alignment.

"If we can hold a team under 50 yards rushing, we can stay with whatever we have lined up. That's just unbelievable. That's tremendous, especially in the NFL," Sharper said. "Whatever defense we're running, if you hold a team under 50 yards rushing, it's going to be effective."

Having the ability to switch back and forth is also helpful, Sharper said.

"It all depends on what offenses do so you can negate what they're trying to do," he said. "If a team wants to the run the ball a lot more, like when Green Bay runs that U-71 package where they brought in three tight ends, sometimes it will be more effective to have four down-linemen to match up with bigger bodies. But if a team is just running a base pro set, where they have one tight end, two backs and two receivers, you can run a 3-4 because you put that linebacker matched up with the tight end and you also have got your other linebacker outside who can come off the edge and cover a back if he was to split out."

Cowart can operate in either defense, but his preference is obvious.

"You look around the league and the teams that run a 3-4, I don't think any of them are around the bottom of the rankings. They're all doing fairly well," Cowart said. "Some coaches don't believe in it because they didn't play in it or coach in it, but I've played in it under Ted and Wade Phillips. I'm a big believer in it. I hope we stick with it."

LOBBYING FOR REWARD

Despite a 2-4 record, some of the players lobbied Tice for a "victory Monday," where the players get most of the day off. Tice said he didn't think they had done enough to this point to warrant that reward.

However, the 23-20 last-second victory against the Packers had another positive effect.

"A couple of things always happen when you win. The training room has fewer bodies in it for some reason and the injuries probably don't feel as bad when you win. Our training room was rather empty (Monday) morning," Tice said. "In fact, our injury list shows nothing new to report. That is the first time in a number of weeks that we have had that."

CLEANING UP THEIR ACT

On the field, the Vikings were a much more disciplined team Sunday. They committed only four penalties for 21 yards. They entered the game averaging 9.5 penalties per game.

"We have had, I think three games, when we had two penalties at halftime and the penalty situation was very, very good going into the second half," Tice said. "Then in the second half, for whatever reason, we had six penalties, seven penalties. This game I thought the players played much smarter."

The Vikings also had better grades on specials teams.

"We had 55 grades on the five kickoff returns and we had 51 two's," Tice said. "That means we only had four negative grades on five kickoff returns. We were very close to a couple other big returns. We were able to get some veterans back in there on special teams."

Koren Robinson broke off a 72-yard kickoff return that the Vikings squandered with a fumble on the opening play of the drive, but Tice said he likes Robinson's explosion on returns.

Robinson had two catches for 9 yards, his first multi-catch game with the Vikings, but getting him more involved on offense may be hindered because of the number of receivers the Vikings have.

"The problem we have is that not every receiver can play. So if he is going to play more, then Troy (Williamson) is going to play less. Marcus Robinson is playing very well right now. Nate (Burleson) is back, so right now it is kind of a rotation going on," Tice said. "There are no more real packages per se where we try to get certain guys on the field. There might be a couple, but now it is a rotation similar to what we have on the defensive line where we try to rotate seven guys through. Right now there is a rotation with the receivers. As we progress, I think Koren will get more and more involved in the games."

LESS OF MOE

If you were surprised to see Michael Bennett getting a handoff near the end zone Sunday, you weren't alone. Bennett was stopped short, forcing the kicking team onto the field. It was a role that would normally be reserved for Moe Williams, but the veteran running back is slowed by a knee injury right now.

"Moe is banged up, so his role right now is strictly blocking on third down," Tice said. "He doesn't have enough push in that leg, which you saw last week which was uncharacteristic of Moe not to make a third-and-1-and-a-half. He doesn't have enough push in that leg yet for us to really give him the ball. He is our third-down blocker right now. Until he gets some strength and push back in that leg, I think that is what we will see. We suited Ciatrick (Fason) in that role yesterday, but we didn't get in that situation."


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