By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007
The Joe Gibbs football archetype is constructed at the line of scrimmage. He envisions two burly, dominant sets of linemen able to punish teams with the ground game on offense and, on defense, take away opponents' ability to run the ball.
While Gibbs has other core principles -- connecting on deep passes and playing stout special teams are two -- the ability to run the ball and stop the run are paramount. So it is not surprising that Gibbs speaks about the Minnesota Vikings with a degree of reverence, for while they are a flawed team in many regards they do two things better than anyone in the NFL this season: run the ball and stop the run. Finding a way to counter those traits dominated meetings and preparations at Redskins Park in the run-up to tonight's game at the Metrodome.
Washington must win the game to remain eligible for the playoffs; the Vikings' wild-card chances would be damaged by a loss.
No two NFC teams have rushed the ball as frequently as Washington (7-7) and Minnesota (8-6) this season.
"That's what they do," Gibbs said of Minnesota's strengths. "You've got to respect that. I know I do. I'm not sure how many teams lead the league in rushing and lead the league in defense, too, against the rush. I think they've done a heck of a job and you watch them each and every week and they've gained a lot of respect from a lot of people."
Said Vikings Coach Brad Childress: "I do have a healthy respect for running the football, because I believe that's how you have a physical offense. I think it's the best way for an offensive lineman to be able to exert his will on somebody.
"And I respect a team like Washington and the way Joe has built that, because I think he also has a healthy respect for that. It doesn't mean you wouldn't like to be good passing the football -- and you have to be able to create big plays -- but obviously your play-action stuff has a lot more merit to it when you're being able to run it."
While the Redskins and Vikings share philosophies and have similar win-loss records, they have used different methods in assembling their rosters. When Gibbs returned to coaching in 2004 he rebuilt the roster through high-profile trades and free agent signings, procuring a core group of veterans while often trading away draft picks. The Vikings, who have won five in a row in Childress's second season in charge, cast aside troubled veterans Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper and loaded up on high draft picks in the past two drafts, replenishing depth and finding starters through the college ranks.
"They've definitely drafted well, there's no doubt about it," said Eric DeCosta, the Baltimore Ravens' director of college scouting. "They've found some good players and we really like what they did this past year. They've stretched for a few guys, but they have a great staff and they really helped their team with guys like [2006 first-round pick Chad] Greenway, [2007 pick cornerback Marcus] McCauley, [2006 pick cornerback Cedric] Griffin, [2007 pick wide receiver Sidney] Rice.
"They got a great value with the running back [2007 first-round pick Adrian Peterson] and the linemen they've drafted there form the identity of the team. They have a very physical style of play and that shows in the players they've brought in."
Minnesota buttressed its roster by accumulating nine picks in the first two rounds from 2005 to 2007. They jettisoned many veterans in the fallout from an alleged sex party aboard a boat involving a number of Vikings during the 2005 season, among them Redskins cornerback Fred Smoot, and have enjoyed success with several free agents. Tailback Chester Taylor, guard Steve Hutchinson, defensive tackle Pat Williams, safety Darren Sharper and cornerback Antoine Winfield have played at a Pro Bowl level since being plucked off the free agent market and have helped make the Vikings formidable in the run offense and defense. Most every other starter came through the draft.
"The draft is how you build your football team, at least we look at it that way," Childress said. "It doesn't mean you don't augment with a free agent here and there, but in a perfect world I guess our choice would be to draft some guys, have them make it and have them be there from step one so that you're able to train them to be pros.
"And I'm just happy that guys like [2007 picks] Sidney Rice and Aundrae Allison and Adrian Peterson and Brain Robison, some of those guys, are contributing in their first year and learning about what this professional game is all about."
Most of those young players will play in the biggest game of their careers today. Peterson, a runaway candidate for rookie of the year who is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, is the focal point of Washington's defensive scheme. He and Taylor have been unstoppable at times, usually behind a left side of the line led by Hutchinson, center Matt Birk and tackle Bryant McKinnie.
"You have to maintain the integrity of your defense and get a bunch of different guys around the football, but they're good at what they do," Redskins linebacker London Fletcher said.
The Vikings are averaging 170 rushing yards per game -- 18 more than any other club in the league -- but have been slowed the past two weeks. Peterson rushed 14 times for just three yards against San Francisco, and had 20 carries for just 78 yards Monday night against the Bears.
The 49ers used an unusual tactic to thwart Peterson -- deploying run blitzes from their cornerbacks to add manpower to the line of scrimmage -- but players said the Redskins are highly unlikely to mimic that gambling approach. Instead, the Redskins will adopt some of Chicago's tactics, which dovetail with Washington's mandate this season to guard against big plays.
The Bears played primarily a cover-2 pass defense scheme in their first meeting with the Vikings in October -- with two deep safeties -- and Peterson ran for 224 yards. On Monday night, Chicago played with just three defensive backs in a cover-3 scheme, with one safety dropped very deep to negate long passes and eight players devoted to stopping the run.
The Redskins players expect they will take a similar approach. "Usually the divisional opponents have a real solid understanding of what they're going to do personnel-wise and match-up wise," said Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense. "It was interesting to see Chicago's train of thought from the first time they played them to Monday."
One NFC North scout said he believes the matchup of Redskins left defensive end Phillip Daniels, a slower but powerful player, and Vikings right tackle Ryan Cook, a second-year lineman, favors Washington. "If Daniels punches that kid in the chest a few times he might not respond too well," the scout said. The scout said he thinks the Redskins can overload Cook's side of the line on blitzes.
Williams did not demur when probed about the need to pressure Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, who has made just 12 starts and accounted for four turnovers against the Bears. Redskins players believe the team will go all out to stop the run and force Jackson to beat them downfield with passes. Jackson was flustered by the Bears, throwing off the wrong foot and while jumping, often putting passes up for grabs.
"We have to make sure that before the ball is snapped he doesn't know what [defense] we're in," Williams said. "We'll mix in the pressures and our rushes and we have to do a good job of moving him off the spot."
Devoting eight men to stopping the run can leave a team short-manned in the defensive backfield and open passing lanes. The Redskins have been willing to yield short-to-intermediate passes all season, as preventing the deep ball is their priority.
"You can't get caught guessing with eight men up front," said one NFC personnel executive who has watched Minnesota closely. "Your corners and safeties have to play deep and stay patient and let them have their quick [passes] and don't get caught with the double move. That's their biggest downfield threat.
Cornerback Shawn "Springs has been trying to jump some routes the last few weeks. You don't have to do that against this kid [Jackson]. Stay in your zone, let him have the underneath stuff and wait for him to make mistakes. He's a school-yard quarterback. He'll give the ball to you."
There is no secret to being able to run the ball on Minnesota. The Vikings led the NFL by allowing just 2.8 yards per rush in 2006, and this year they rank second in that regard (3.0 per carry, seven-tenths of a yard better than the next best team). Turning to screen passes to the tailbacks could be a viable alternative to trying to force the running game, scouts said, given Minnesota's personnel. The Williams duo anchors the defense, linebacker E.J. Henderson (Maryland) has been a tackling machine and players such as Sharper and Winfield shine in the run game.
"They have a really good scheme," Redskins center Casey Rabach said. "They like to bring the linebackers downhill to break up double teams and confuse the offensive line, and the secondary is not afraid to stick their heads in the box and make plays for them, either."
Said Sharper: "We've been so good at stopping the run for so long that we go into each and every game feeling as though we're going to dominate each team that tries to run the football. It's getting to the football and having all 11 players around the ball."
The Vikings are vying to be the first team since the 2001 Pittsburgh Steelers to lead the NFL in rushing offense and defense, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, but are most focused on the playoffs. Even their five-game winning streak has not secured a postseason spot, and their 2-5 start is indicative of a team still in transition.
Some believe that a collapse in the final two weeks of the season could still cost Childress his job. The betting line favors the Vikings tonight, but several scouts and team executives said they believe the matchup is even, with the Redskins getting the edge in wide receiver talent and boasting a more experienced quarterback in career backup Todd Collins.
"I know the Redskins have some injuries to their safeties," the NFC personnel executive said, "but I like Washington's talent. If [starting free safety LaRon] Landry plays [he missed practice this week with a quad injury], and he can get around, I like Washington's chances."