Vikings run defense faltering in key moments
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- For years the Minnesota Vikings defense has prided itself on one basic and unyielding tenet -- smash the run game.
You don't run on us, they said. And opponents didn't.
What has been one of the best run defenses in league history is showing more and more cracks at the worst possible times, with the latest coming in a 33-27 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Needing a stop to get the ball back to their offense in the final 2:30, the Vikings gave up 55 yards rushing to James Starks to allow the Packers to run out the clock.
Any loss, especially a home defeat to their NFC North rivals, is a tough one to swallow. But to watch the Packers' mediocre running game gouge the proud Vikings front seven at the most critical point of the game only magnified the sting.
"It's hard to see that happen when you know how well we played run defense here for a number of years," coach Leslie Frazier said. "It's something that we really have to address.
"Everything we talk about from a defensive standpoint starts with stopping the run. That was a chance for us to really come up big. They did a great job of blocking and moving the football."
Running the ball against the purple, especially when playing in the Metrodome, simply hasn't been an option for opposing offenses for most of the last decade. In fact, it was common to see opponents completely abandon the running game rather than slam their heads into the vaunted Williams Wall in the middle of the defensive front.
But one half of that tackle tandem -- Pat Williams -- was not brought back this season and the unit that led the league in fewest yards rushing allowed from 2006 to 2008 and finished second in 2009 hasn't played up to its lofty standards.
Reputation, perhaps more than reality, led Frazier to make the key decision at the end of the game with his team down six points. The Vikings had a fourth-and-10 from their own 36.
With all three of their timeouts and the two-minute warning, Frazier decided to punt the ball, hoping his defense could stop the pedestrian Packers running game and get the ball back to Christian Ponder and the offense for one last shot.
But Starks ripped runs of 15, 20 and 14 yards among his six carries to run out the clock and seal a victory for the Packers.
"It's definitely frustrating," middle linebacker E.J. Henderson said. "That's our motto and that's our mantra -- smash the run. To come out at the end of the game with (2:30) left and be able to close the deal, that is tough for us."
Injuries have certainly contributed to the slide.
Former All-Pro Kevin Williams, the other half of the "Williams Wall," is playing with a painful case of plantar fasciitis in his left foot and hasn't been the same force that he was for his first seven years in the league.
Henderson is dealing with pain in his swollen left knee that has zapped some of his aggressiveness in tracking down runners from sideline to sideline, safety Jamarca Sanford was out with a concussion and safeties Husain Abdullah and Tyrell Johnson have yet to show they are capable of being factors in the running game.
"One of the things we talked about prior to the game was, every guy just doing his job on every single play as a team," Frazier said. "Just doing your responsibility. Well in that last drive we had a couple guys who tried to make some plays that weren't necessarily their plays to make."
Kevin Williams took some of the blame for not adhering to his assignment on two of the plays and defensive end Brian Robison said the breakdowns were a microcosm of this 1-6 season.
"It's just one of those things that you look at and you know what we should have done and we didn't do it," Robison said. "That's kind of the story of our season so far is looking at things and seeing what we should've done and not doing them. We've got to make sure that no matter what, we make those corrections and make sure they don't happen again. Unfortunately they are. They're happening over and over."
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Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
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