Third-year DT Kevin Williams has 22 sacks in just two NFL seasons
Here's what the Minnesota Vikings of the last decade would have been with a strong defense: Scary.
The Vikings haven't ranked lower than 12th in the NFL's offensive rankings over the past 10 years. They've only dropped out of the top 10 twice in the past decade on offense, but they've been in the top three four times in that span. In 1998, they set an NFL record by scoring 556 points; in 2003, they ranked first in the league with 393 yards per game.
Over that same decade, however, Minnesota has recorded an average NFL defensive ranking of 24th, only twice finishing better than 20th. Their best ranking in that span was 13th, in 1998; not coincidentally, that Minnesota team finished 15-1 in the regular season (losing only to Tampa Bay) and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. In 2003, that top-ranked offense was balanced by a 23rd-ranked D, and the Vikings went 9-7, missing the playoffs. Last year, the Vikes dropped to 28th on defense and 8-8 in the standings, though they did qualify for the postseason.
In some ways, the Vikings' last decade has been the reverse of the Buccaneers', though Tampa Bay did find enough offense in 2002 to win Super Bowl XXXVII.
Perhaps Minnesota has decided that it must unearth its own defensive standards – this is a team that led the league in defense three times between 1998 and 1993 – in order to get its own Super Bowl win. That certainly seemed to be symbolic in the Vikings' big trade of the offseason, in which the principle player leaving was wide receiver Randy Moss and the principle player arriving was linebacker Napoleon Harris (the Vikings also got Oakland's first-round pick, which they used on a replacement receiver, Troy Williamson).
Harris will start at right outside linebacker for the Vikings, but that's only the beginning of the defensive overhaul. There's a new right cornerback (Fred Smooth), a new free safety (Darren Sharper), a new middle linebacker (Sam Cowart), a new right defensive end (Darrion Scott) and a new nose tackle (Pat Williams). All but Scott, a third-round draft pick in 2004, are new to the team in 2005.
"They made numerous changes to their defense," said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They added a big nose tackle from Buffalo [Williams] who's a great run defender. Bringing in Fred Smoot to go with [Antoine] Winfield, they're good on the corner. Sharper comes over from Green Bay…they're loaded."
The Vikings also spent their second first-round pick on a defensive end, Wisconsin star Erasmus James, and they added Winfield, the left corner a year earlier. Throw in defensive tackle Kevin Williams, he of the 22 sacks and one Pro Bowl berth in just two seasons, and you suddenly have a very deep and talented unit. The only remaining question is how well and how quickly these disparate parts can jell, and the Buccaneers will provide the first test.
"They've made so many changes on their football team, you have to speculate a little bit, too," said Gruden, as to forming a defensive scouting report. "[Pat] Williams, the big nose tackle, is a great run defender. They're a completely different team on defense than they've been."
Of course, the Bucs are trying to prove they've done the same thing on offense, and they've certainly altered the personnel. The surest bet seems to be new tailback Cadillac Williams, the fifth overall pick in last April's draft; the biggest question mark, until proven otherwise, will be a reconstituted and younger offensive line. At receiver, the Bucs have a lot of young blood in three draft choices that made the team – Larry Brackins, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell – but they will rely heavily on proven second-year man Michael Clayton, healthy speedster Joey Galloway and newly-acquired vet Ike Hilliard.
All of this will be orchestrated by quarterback Brian Griese, who saw limited action in the preseason but was a prolific passer for the Bucs in 10 starts last year.
The Vikings, of course, have a prolific passer of their own in Daunte Culpepper, a perennial league MVP candidate. With or without Moss, who was there for each of Culpepper's first six seasons, the former Central Florida star is sure to put up big numbers. He has averaged 32 touchdown passes and 4,098 passing yards over the last two years and is also a threat to run, with at least 400 rushing yards in each of the last four seasons.
While the Bucs have a fairly good record against Culpepper – three Tampa Bay wins in five matchups, plus eight interceptions versus five touchdowns – they also know that he is incredibly hard to bring down and especially dangerous at home.
"He's one of the elite players in the world right now at that position," said Gruden. "He's tremendous. He's not only a great passer and a very poised professional, but he's a big guy. He's a hard guy to tackle when you get there. He's a great player on the top of his game and he's clearly the leader of that football team.
"When the game's on the line, the guy shines. He never quits, and it takes three guys to tackle him sometimes. He's a great player. He's in the prime of his career."
Seeking the make the most out of Culpepper's prime years, the Vikings moved boldly this offseason, beginning with the Moss trade. If Williamson can replace the missing downfield threat in the Vikings' passing attack and third-year man Nate Burleson can continue to emerge as a go-to receiver, Minnesota will probably not miss a beat.
"Troy Williamson is a great young prospect at wide receiver and obviously they've stated that they're going to make some changes on offense," said Gruden. "They're good up front, too. They've got a good football team on offense, that's for sure."
With that personnel, including running backs Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Mewelde Moore, it's hard to imagine the Vikings struggling on offense. They certainly haven't for some time. Similarly, it's difficult to imagine Tampa Bay's defense sinking after eight straight years in the top 10 of the league rankings. Stars like Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber are still in place and still at the top of their games, and they're welcoming in a new wave of young contributors like Dewayne White, Jermaine Phillips and, eventually, Barrett Ruud. They certainly begin the 2005 with a serious challenge.
The Vikings look tough, as usual. If the defense is as improved as it appears to be on paper, they could be scary.