Last season, the Vikings defense showed it can be consistent and that, unlike past defenses in purple, they can carry a squad to the playoffs.
Even when Pro Bowl defensive tackle Pat Williams went down in week 15 with a shoulder injury, the defensive line played well against the run, allowing 70 yards to Michael Turner (finished second in the league in total rushing yards) in week 16, 77 yards against Derrick Ward and a terrific Giants offensive line, and only 38 yards against Brian Westbrook of the Eagles in the playoffs.
However, the Vikings offense couldn't get it done when it mattered most as Minnesota was ousted too early in a season that looked promising.
This year, the Vikings defense looks to build upon its strong run defense as well as improve against the pass which finished near the middle of the league in 2008 after finishing dead last defending through the air in 2007.
In 2008, it was also a safe statement to say the Steelers were carried to their Super Bowl XLIII championship by their stout 3-4 defense led by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
I thought with how bad the Steelers passing game had played that they would indeed suffer the same fate as the Vikings, but Big Ben proved me wrong on the last drive of the big game and stood under the confetti holding the Lombardi Trophy on the sports world's biggest stage.
This season, there is no reason why the Vikings defense can't duplicate what Pittsburgh did in 2008 and become a better defense by getting off the quarterback.
Now, I am not saying the Vikings offense is ready to compete for a championship, but they certainly have the talent. I am talking defense.
These are the reasons the Purple People Eaters will have a better defense than the No. 1 ranked Steelers defense in 2009.
1. The Same Consistent Defense That Stops the Run
The Vikings defense has finished No. 1 against the run in the league the past three seasons and there is no reason to think that would change, barring Pat Williams and Kevin Williams being suspended the first four games of the season for using a banned diuretic.
As I previously mentioned, even with no Pat Williams in the lineup, the defensive line has shown its depth. Defensive tackle Fred Evans has proved to be a valuable backup and can also be an effective pass rusher on third downs when Pat Williams comes out.
In 2009, the Vikings will get their starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson back after losing him for the season in week four last year with dislocated toes. Henderson has been a very valuable linebacker against the run, finishing first in tackles on the team in 2007. Even with no Henderson, linebacker Napolean Harris proved to be a quick learner and played effectively in defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's scheme.
Oh yeah, the Steelers finished first in virtually every defense category last season except for what? That's right, rush defense.
2. An Improved Pass Rush From the Defensive Line
Yeah, I did say that. I think the Vikings defensive line will be even better as a unit this season after some of the newer free agents and younger players have had some time to gel.
Defensive end Jared Allen, the biggest pickup of the 2008 offseason after a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, led the team in sacks with 14.5 while bringing consistent pressure and forcing offensive lines to pay attention to their left side. Two other younger ends, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison, look to battle for the starting job in training camp. Robison had an impressive season last year, playing his best football in the playoffs. This competition will bring out the best from each guy and that will result in more production from each player.
In 2009, the Vikings will have an even better pass rush due to the experience and a good coverage scheme from Frazier. Look for more sacks and turnovers caused by an improved rush from the defensive line.
The Steelers had the best pass rush of any team last season hands-down. However, they have struggled up front and are bringing in first-round pick Ziggy Hood to anchor the middle of the defensive line. That inexperience could hurt Pittsburgh this season.
3. Effective Coverage From the Linebackers
With a pass rush that has been improving the past couple of years, Leslie Frazier has not had to blitz with the linebackers as much. Before Allen came along, Henderson and outside linebacker Ben Leber were the two more effective blitzing linebackers, but that usually left holes open in the middle of the field for tight ends to run free.
If the Vikings front four can keep putting pressure on the quarterback, the linebacking core will be able to sit back and stop the underneath passes that have haunted the purple in year's past.
I have a feeling that not getting a rush on the quarterback from the defensive line could hurt the Steelers in 2009. LeBeau has counted on outside linebackers Lamar Woodley and James Harrison to rush the quarterback. If Pittsburgh wants to stay atop the NFL ranks in overall defense, they better start getting more production from whoever is starting at nose tackle (most likely Ziggy Hood) and from the staring defensive ends.
4. Cedric Griffin's Improved Play as the No. 2 Cornerback
I was worried about the future of the Vikings corner spot in 2006 and 2007 due to Griffin being beat so much on slant routes and fades. It seemed he was confused on his coverages and was not the best tackler when supporting the run.
However, Griffin really showed improvement in 2008, learning from Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Winfield, who has been the team's No. 1 corner since 2004 when he was signed as a free agent from the Buffalo Bills.
Along with with an interception in the regular season and a crucial pick of Donovan McNabb in the playoffs, Griffin has proved he can play the run as well as many corners in the league and isn't afraid to stick his neck in the trenches.
The Steelers had a great secondary in 2008 and I expect them to also have a good secondary this upcoming year but you have to be concerned with the departure of cornerback Bryant McFadden to the Arizona Cardinals in free agency. It looks like either William Gay or Fernando Bryant will take over McFadden's spot but neither will bring the coverage and leadership that he brought to the unit last season.
5. Tyrell Johnson Added as a Starter to Stop the Big Play
I will not argue that the Vikings have a better set of safeties than the Pittsburgh Steelers but I do think they improve with the addition of safety Tyrell Johnson to the starting unit.
Last season, it seemed then-starter Darren Sharper got caught watching the quarterbacks eyes and was beat for some big plays. It also seemed that Sharper had been slowing down due to his age (33) and didn't have the athletic ability to jump receivers' routes on a regular basis.
Johnson, the Vikings first pick (2nd-round) in the 2008 draft, will fit in nicely for Frazier and the Tampa 2 defense, bringing his atleticism and hard hitting ability to an already aggressive defense. Look for his presence to result in better pass coverage that produces more interceptions in 2009.
In 2008, the Steelers rode their defense to Tampa in February. In 2009, there is reason to believe the Vikings can ride their defense to Miami in Super Bowl XLIV. These are my reasons why the purple's defense can shine more brightly than Pittsburgh's this season. Just wait until week seven when the Vikings invade Heinz Field, you can complement my analysis then.
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