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Tice's best defense might be -- his defense
Tice's best defense might be -- his defense
Aug. 11, 2005
By Clark Judge
CBS SportsLine.com Senior Writer
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Vikings: Five things to know
MANKATO, Minn. -- With Minnesota's Mike Tice entering the last season of his contract and working for an owner -- a new owner -- who didn't hire him, the popular assumption is Tice is about to make his farewell tour as coach of the Vikings.
Don't be so sure.
I know the history of established coaches and new owners is not good (see Tom Landry, Don Coryell, Norv Turner, Dan Reeves), but Tice has a chance, a legitimate chance, to defend himself where he could not in the past.
Mike Tice might not have to put as much pressure on Daunte Culpepper and the offense. (AP)
And defense is what this year is all about in Minneapolis.
One look at the new names on the roster, and it becomes apparent the Vikings are serious about correcting a defense that ranked 29th against the pass, 28th overall and 30th in third-down efficiency last season. There's free-agent safety Darren Sharper. And cornerback Fred Smoot. Defensive tackle Pat Williams. And linebacker Sam Cowart. Former Oakland linebacker Napoleon Harris. And rookie defensive end Erasmus James.
"Everybody knows the Vikings as an offensive team," said Smoot, who left Washington after four years there, "but we're going to change the face of it."
If they're successful, the Vikings could -- and maybe should -- win the NFC North and reach the playoffs for the second consecutive season. But that's where Tice comes in, because if there's a key variable here, it's a head coach who's under pressure to produce and produce now.
Pardon Tice if he has been down this block before.
"I've had to prove myself since I got the job," he said. "There's always been pressure. Last year I was on a one-year contract; this year I'm on a one-year contract. I'm always (known as) the lowest-paid coach and not ready for the job, but I think I've grown with the job and responsibility. I think I've grown with this team.
"I look at it like this: The pressure you put on yourself has to be more than any situation can be to you. So I'm constantly applying pressure to do better; to make this team better; to get the most out of this team. I'm a Type A New Yorker. I don't see that any kind of pressure can be more than I put on myself."
Defensive end Darrion Scott is not exactly what you'd call a household name, but he might be after this season. He's pushing hard for a starting job and making an impression while doing it. The second-year pro is tall (6-feet-3) and quick for his size. Though he produced his first career sack in the playoffs vs. Brett Favre and the Packers last season, he's more of a run stopper. He was expected to share the defensive right end position with first-round draft choice Erasmus James -- and he just might. But he has the inside position now that James missed part of training camp.
Five things you should know
The focus is on Tice and his coaching staff partly because of what happened the past two years when Minnesota died down the stretch, losing seven of its final 10 games in each season. But it's on them, too, because of what happened in the offseason, when the front office spent big bucks to plug gaping holes in a defense that surrendered an average of 26.6 points in its final five regular-season games -- four of them losses.
"Management and ownership have given us the tools that we need," said defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell. "Now there are no excuses because they've given us what we asked for. Now it's up to the coaches to get the players to play; to get them to blend together and play with the right attitude; to get them to play good, solid football. The burden's on us."
For the moment, the Vikings defense looks vastly improved. Their secondary is so talented and deep that cornerback Antoine Winfield called it the best in the league, with Smoot seconding the nomination.
The defensive line is bigger and better in the middle, where Pat Williams lines up next to Kevin Williams. One guy is 6-feet-5, 311; the other is 6-3, 317. Tell me which one you attack with two or three blockers, as opponents did with Kevin Williams a year ago.
Then there's the veteran leadership that was missing in 2004. Cowart has it. So does Sharper. So does Pat Williams. That will help if things get as rocky as they did in the second halves of the past two seasons.
"Every position you look at we have talent," said Sharper. "And that's something they haven't had here in Minnesota the last couple of years, so it's definitely going to be a year where there's a changing of the guard."
Critical to Minnesota's success is the experience players have in Cottrell's defense. Pat Williams played for Cottrell in Buffalo. Cowart and Cottrell were together with the New York Jets. Winfield and cornerback Ken Irvin were with him in Buffalo.
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Results can be immediate, and the evidence was there this week. At one practice, a Daunte Culpepper pass was swatted down at the line of scrimmage. On another play in the same series, Culpepper was forced to flee the pocket before throwing the ball away. As he walked off the field, he shook his head.
"What stands out early is that these guys are moving around quicker," said defensive end Lance Johnstone. "That means they know what they're doing. Last year we were trying to get a grasp of the defense; now, people are just moving."
Imagine the Minnesota Vikings with a defense. You might have to start. A week ago the Vikings were without three key defensive performers, including Smoot, who was sidelined with a neck injury. When coaches convened after practice more than one mentioned that it was the most talented group of defenders they'd had at Minnesota -- and that was without the three missing players.
"When coaches feel that way," said Tice, "you've really made some strides with your outfit."
Minnesota has. Now it's up to Tice and his coaching staff to see how far they can go.
"I don't know if the heat's on the coaches," Tice said, "but it's sure a lot easier to coach when you have the players."