As indications point to the Vikings reverting to the 4-3 defense with which they started the season, one player ready to make a bigger impact is first-round draft choice Erasmus James.
James started the season battling an illness that sapped his energy and gave him headaches. That slowed his initial progress. Then, a few weeks after he felt back to full strength, the Vikings started employing the 3-4 defensive set that all but eliminated James as a pass-rushing defensive end.
He admits the 3-4 defense doesn’t do a lot for his value as an edge rusher, just like it put Kevin Williams out of position as an end instead of his more natural under tackle position.
“The thing about the 3-4 is you’re play two gaps,” James said. “You’re not on the edge, where an edge rusher comes off the edge with that speed. You’re in front of that guy; he’s pretty much covering you up too, so you’ve got to work the inside to outside. By the time you get back to the quarterback, the ball is usually already released because you only have about 3 or 4 seconds at most.”
James never considered stopping the run and taking time to read defenses his strong points. He has told Viking Update throughout his six-month development as a Viking that he needed to improve in stopping the run to become a better all-around defensive end, but his strength is still coming off the edge as a pass rusher, like a younger Lance Johnstone.
James has received some reps in the 3-4 set but admits he hasn’t been productive as a pass rusher in that set.
“(Pressure) is always a priority, that’s what we’re trying to work on,” he said. “It’s kind of hard in the 3-4, but that’s one thing we do need to improve on and we need to do this coming week.
“I think that’s why they brought me in in the first place, to pretty much focus in on the pass rush.”
Defensive end Darrion Scott echoes the sentiments of James that playing a 3-4 and having the responsibility of covering two gaps will naturally slow down defensive linemen in their attempts to get to the quarterback.
Overall, the Vikings haven’t produced a sack in two games, and collectively they have only nine sacks in their seven games.
“The defensive line has been working at getting to the quarterback, but we’ve still got a lot of games,” Scott said. “Who’s to say we’re not going to have all these sacks on the back end of the season? Sometimes that’s just how the trends go in the NFL. Some teams just start out slow, but then they get going.”
One thing that would help when the Vikings do run their 3-4 set is having the blitzing linebackers pick up the sack. But Scott said that isn’t as easy as it might sound, especially from a team that has grown up running the 4-3.
“How often are our linebackers used to rushing the passer? It’s not something where we’re going to change to the 3-4 and then all of the sudden our linebackers become great pass-rushing linebackers. It comes with time,” Scott said. “If you get in a new defense, guys have to adapt to the defense. … It doesn’t just come overnight. Sometimes it may take several weeks.
“We’ve got guys who aren’t selfish. That was the main thing in adapting to what we wanted to do.”
Any defensive end trying to make a switch between the 3-4 and the 4-3 might have struggled with the transition. Asking a rookie whose strong suit is clearly rushing the passing may have been too much, but James said he is learning a few things about rushing the passer in this league.
“You’ve got to limit moves to get there faster because the quarterback isn’t going to be in the pocket so long,” he said. “Back in college, he could be there for so long trying to look around and make plays, but in this league you’ve got to get rid of it faster.”
That gives James time for just one move and a counter – nothing more – before the quarterback has rid himself of the ball.
The task may be even harder this week facing the Detroit Lions, who run an offense predicated on rushing the ball and a quick, rhythm passing game.
“You’ve always got to focus on the coverages (when facing a West Coast offense), but you still need to get that pressure up front because that’s what gets those guys interceptions, that’s what throws the ball off, that’s what (makes the QB) throw it high because you’re in his face,” James said.
THOMAS READY FOR ACTION
After sitting out two games with a bruised shoulder, linebacker Dontarrious Thomas says he’s feeling “really good” and ready to go. The 2004 second-round pick said the main thing was getting strength back in his shoulder, but he could have played last week.
In the 4-3 defense, Thomas has been used mainly as a backup at weakside linebacker. He also started two games at middle linebacker last year for an injured E.J. Henderson and three on the weak side. This year, his main action has been as a nickel linebacker.
“Whether we play a 3-4 or 4-3 doesn’t affect how much I play. How much I play is determined on the team we play,” he said.
It’s clear, however, that Thomas hasn’t completely found a home. He was most productive as a middle linebacker last year, although the Vikings clearly view him as an outside linebacker.
Middle or outside, he said he doesn’t care. What seems to matter more to him is finding a home and settling in at one position to learn it well.
“There is no preference. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable and getting my reps in, being knowledgeable of the defense. That’s were my comfort comes in, not from my position and where I’m located on the field. It’s going to be easier either way if you know your assignment. If you don’t know your assignment, you’re going to be out there jittery and making mistakes.”
He is taking the patient approach.
“I’ve just got to wait my turn. We have good linebackers here. E.J. is having a great year this year, as he was last year. Sam Cowart is a veteran leader, and so is Keith Newman,” Thomas said. “It’s just the timing and being patient and everything will work itself out.”
FOWLER SETTLING IN
Center Melvin Fowler is set to make his fourth consecutive start for the Vikings and said his confidence level isn’t an issue anymore.
“It’s pretty high. I have a lot to learn and I’m not 100 percent, but I feel comfortable with this offense,” Fowler said.
Fowler said the Vikings’ protection problems are a combination of things, mostly communication issues.
“It’s not one particular area, it’s a combination of things. We just have to make sure that we’re executing all the time and that everyone is on the same page and we’ll be alright,” he said.
The Vikings entered the season as one of favorites to contend for the NFC title. At 2-5, those days seem in the distant past. James knows all about high expectations and disappointing results: “Last year, those expectations weren’t at the beginning of the season but they were at the end of the season at Wisconsin. We were 9-0 and we lost the last three games,” he said.
Fowler would have no problem if the Vikings elected to keep Shaun Hill as their No. 2 quarterback. “I played college football with Shaun (at Maryland),” Fowler said. “I think he’s a great quarterback.”
The Vikings have been outscored 94-10 in the second quarter this season, and head coach Mike Tice has commented on that growing disparity the last few weeks. “I’ve talked so many times that a significant factor in this league and a significant stat is normally, and the high percentage – I can’t quote you a percentage, I want to say 80 percent – of the teams that win the second quarter win the game for a couple of reasons. One, it is so hard to come back in the league and win. Why that is we’ll continue to look at that,” Tice said. “Every week we look at the plays we’re calling and where we’re calling them. We look at the ways we are setting up and breaking tendencies. We’ll continue to look at that.”
Wide receiver Koren Robinson and Darren Sharper took a few snaps at quarterback in Thursday’s walk-through, and Robinson said everything went well, even after the mild concussion he suffered from a violent hit he took Sunday while returning a kickoff. “I was a little groggy that night, but after that it was a done deal,” Robinson said.
Robinson said if needed he’d love to give quarterback a try. “I’m an athlete. I’d be up for the challenge,” he said. “I would love to play an NFL game as quarterback, and I’ve got (jersey number) 18 – that’s a perfect number for it too. I’d get the job done.”
How bad has the quarterback play been in the NFC North this season? Bengals CB Deltha O'Neal leads the NFL with six interceptions, and all six have come against NFC North quarterbacks – Minnesota’s Daunte Culpepper (3), Green Bay's Brett Favre (2) and Chicago's Kyle Orton (1). O'Neal has played consistently well this season, collecting 36 total tackles and 15 passes defensed to go along with the interceptions. He is on track to make his second Pro Bowl team (Denver, 2001).