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3 - Minnesota Vikings
Dennis Green and Co. are primed for their sixth playoff appearance in seven years, but only if a suspect secondary is up to the challenge
That was appropriate, for if the Vikings have any expectations of making a serious playoff run in '98, they must first improve their pass defense. If you thought the organization's most embarrassing acts since the start of last season were occurring off the fieldwhat with coach Dennis Green penning an autobiography that included his plans to sue two owners to get a piece of the team and author Tom Clancy's own fictional bid to buy the franchisewell, you didn't pay much attention to what the secondary was up to.
In 1997 the Vikings defense ranked 29th in the league in passing yards allowed; 28th in touchdown passes allowed, opponents' completion percentage and yards per pass attempt; tied for 25th in interceptions; and 25th in stopping the opposition on third down. "We know we were the weak unit on this team last year," says second-year backup free safety Torrian Gray. "The only way for us to shed that label is to play out of it. We'll all just have to have thick skin until we prove otherwise."
Things got worse shortly after the season ended with a loss to the 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs. Minnesota was interested in acquiring one of a trio of cornerbacksfree agents Doug Evans or Darryl Pounds, or the Saints' Eric Allen. But Evans left the Packers for the Panthers, Pounds re-signed with the Redskins, and Allen was shipped to the Raiders. Finally, Minnesota traded a third-round draft pick in 1999 to the Patriots to acquire restricted free agent Jimmy Hitchcock.
A 1995 third-round selection who started 20 games and had four interceptions in three seasons with New England, Hitchcock replaces Dewayne Washington, a free agent who left for the Steelers. Hitchcock may be short on experience, but he isn't lacking in confidence. In that regard, he should fit in nicely with the overly aggressive Corey Fuller, a world-class trash talker but only an average coverage corner.
"I will be an upgrade to this unit," says Hitchcock, the only new face among the Vikings' starting 22 from a year ago. "I'm a developmental learner. That means with every year of experience I get better and better. The problems with ownership here didn't bother me. Who the owner is has no bearing on how I cover [the Lions'] Herman Moore, right? I chose to come here because this team has the talent to win it all."
Smith is a former world-class sprinter, but Gray is no slouch in the speed department either. He complements Griffith, who is among the hardest hitters in the game and the quiet leader of the secondary. Free safety Orlando Thomas appears fully healed from a knee injury that slowed him throughout 1997, and for depth the Vikings signed cornerback Larry Brown, the MVP of Super Bowl XXX.
To improve the pass defense, coordinator Foge Fazio has worked with players on their pursuit angles. For simplicity's sake, he also pared coverage packages. "It really just comes down to pride," says Griffith. "Nobody wants to be 29th in the league in anything. That's just not gonna happen again. I won't let it. This year we'll be in the top five or six in the league [in pass defense]. I promise."
A few hours later, on the first play of the intrasquad scrimmage, Griffith belted a tight end in the flat and recovered the loose ball. It was only one play, but it was a start.
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