Rehashing what went down last week in Arizona would be redundant at this point. Suffice it to say, the Vikings got owned, and for the first time this season, gave the faithful a legitimate reason to doubt them.
Thankfully, as long as you have another game on the schedule, you have a chance to silence the doubters.
For the Vikings, that chance comes today at the Venue Formerly Known as Metrodome, against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that offers many of the same challenges the Cardinals did.
Primarily, the Bengals offer a physical challenge, particularly defensively. They have a tough, run-stuffing defensive line…the same kind of line that overwhelmed the Vikings’ blockers last weekend.
If Minnesota is to rebound from the debacle in the desert, they will need to be better on the offensive line. A lot better. And a lot healthier. The second problem may be the stickier. Bryant McKinnie and Phil Loadholt are both still dealing with the injuries that briefly and simultaneously knocked them from the Arizona game. The good news is that, after a couple weeks out with a concussion, Anthony Herrera should be back in, giving Brad Childress the option of using Artis Hicks at tackle if it comes to that.
Whoever ends up playing on the O-Line for the Vikes today will have the critical task of helping resurrect a running attack that has steadily diminished in effectiveness throughout the season. Hopefully, the meek rushing performance of a week ago represented the bottom of the curve, and things will only improve from here.
But what if things don’t improve? What if Adrian Peterson continues getting rolled over by multitudes of barely-blocked defenders? What if Brett Favre finds pressure in his face and throws more picks? The Vikings could probably lose every game the rest of the season and still make the playoffs, but if they go in with a crippled, crumbling offensive line, what chance would they have of getting past the first round?
I would say none.
And this is why, just for our own peace of mind, we would really like to see a better performance by the line this week.
This game is all about reassurance. We need a win over the Bengals to calm the anxiety stirred by that undressing in Phoenix. We need a return to the efficient brand of offensive football we enjoyed for most of the first 11 games.
And we need a return to the dominating defensive line play that helped the Vikings start the season 10-1.
In many ways, the failure of the D-Line against Arizona was more disturbing than the failure of the O-Line. At least the O-Line had the excuse of injuries and being somewhat overrated in the first place. The D-Line was healthy and had, for much of the season, lived up to its reputation.
The Cardinals can be given credit for effectively neutralizing Jared Allen, but what about Kevin Williams and Ray Edwards, who presumably saw plenty of single-teaming with so much focus on Jared?
When Adrian Peterson said earlier this week that some of his teammates didn’t show up against the Cards, he might have been speaking specifically of K-Will and Ray, who vanished so completely that I wondered if they’d gotten arrested before the game and the NBC crew just forgot to mention it.
If effort itself was the issue for Williams and Edwards, then there’s no excuse. Both those guys need to prove this week that they still have a pair. Otherwise, Jared is going to see multiple extra blockers the rest of the season and probably not get another sniff of the sweet sweet quarterback meat he loves so well.
Actually, this week, the run defense may be the more critical issue. Arizona passed the ball so effectively that it didn’t matter if they ran it or not. The Bengals, however, are a run-heavy offense, with Cedric Benson as the primary ball carrier. The Vikings will need to get back to their signature punishing run defense, stop Benson, and place the onus on Carson Palmer who is having a good-but-not-great season.
Complicating the Vikings’ efforts toward recovering their defensive mojo is the loss of E.J. Henderson, who is out for the season after breaking his femur in gruesome fashion vs. Arizona. Rookie Jasper Brinkley will get the start in Henderson’s place. And another rookie, Jamarca Sanford, will crack the starting line-up in place of Tyrell Johnson who is out with a concussion. For those keeping track, that’s two rookies getting their first-ever start.
The good health-related news is that Antoine Winfield looks like he will finally get to play again after several weeks of practicing, warming-up and then being deactivated. If Winfield can play at anything like 100% capacity, it will be great for the Vikings, who not only need his cover skills against Chad Ochocinco and the gang, but badly need his vaunted run-support prowess in helping stuff Benson.
It is, overall, an all-hands-on-deck sort of week for the Vikings. Everyone who played bad against Arizona needs to turn it around, including Brett Favre, whose two interceptions sounded echoes of last year’s December swoon. And the coaches need to show they can start solving some of the vexing issues facing the team, especially the drop-off in the running game.
Today’s game is, to put it bluntly, a show-your-cojones game. Against the Bengals, we will find out if the Vikings have the character to rebound from frustration and bewilderment and return to the confident brand of football they were playing before. We will discover if they have the capacity to assert themselves physically the way we thought. We will, in short, find out whether we have a real contending team on our hands or one that is doomed to fade down the stretch.
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