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Rush to the Top
Peter King
September 30, 1996
How the upstart Vikings blitzed the Pack, Manning's draft options, Mouthy George slapped with suspension
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September 30, 1996

Rush To The Top

How the upstart Vikings blitzed the Pack, Manning's draft options, Mouthy George slapped with suspension

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Foge Fazio couldn't believe what he was seeing. Fazio, the Vikings' defensive coordinator, had prepared all sorts of complicated blitzes to confuse the NFL's fastest gun, Packers quarterback Brett Favre, but as Sunday's game unfolded he determined his front four was so effective at rushing the passer that it wasn't necessary to call a blitz.

Minnesota blitzed 14 times in the first half but only once in the second of a stunning 30-21 win at the Metrodome. On the 34 plays in which he dropped back to pass, Favre was sacked seven times—every time by a lineman—and knocked down 10 times after throwing. Even when the Packers kept in a tight end and the fullback to block, and even when Favre took a three-step drop, he still got hit. Time after time, with the Vikings rushing four players and the Pack blocking with as many as six or seven, Minnesota broke through the protection.

"Sometimes we as coaches make things complex," Fazio said later, his eyes bloodshot from the strain of preparing for what had been the hottest offense in the NFL. "But you look at the guys on our defense, and they're so relentless. I'm not going to tame them. What sense would that make? Sometimes it's best not to plan everything. Just let your players play."

At 4-0, Minnesota is the surprise team of the NFL, and if you had to pick a Most Valuable Viking, you would have to choose from among five defensive players: ends Derrick Alexander, Fernando Smith and Martin Harrison, and tackles John Randle and Esera Tuaolo. As long as its ferocious front stays healthy and hungry, Minnesota is certain to be a playoff factor.

What Fazio did on Sunday was show defensive coordinators around the league a blueprint for how to beat Green Bay. Here are the key elements.

Attack the left tackle. The Pack can hide it no longer: Third-year veteran Gary Brown is not the answer at left tackle. He made Alexander, a first-round pick in 1995, look like an All-Pro. Alexander finished with five tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery. This year's first-round draft choice, John Michels, isn't ready to start, but Green Bay may have no choice but to play him soon. Even if 11-year incumbent Ken Ruettgers comes back in three weeks—he's rehabbing a degenerative left knee and may not last long when he returns—this crucial position could turn into a huge weakness for the Packers. The left tackle is supposed to protect Favre's blind side, and Green Bay could be just one hit away from losing its star.

Don't blitz Favre. Granted, a superior pass rush helps, but the Vikings proved that dropping seven men in coverage is the best way to frustrate Green Bay's offense. Such a scheme allows a defense to give the cornerbacks help on wideout Robert Brooks and lie in wait underneath on tight ends Mark Chmura and Keith Jackson.

Play clockball. The Vikings held the ball for 38 minutes, and Green Bay ran only 49 plays, its fewest in two years. "The most difficult time for a racehorse is the time he spends between the paddock and the gate," Minnesota coach Dennis Green said. "He can't wait to race. What you want to do with Green Bay is make them antsy."

In the losers' locker room, the Packers remained levelheaded. "I still think we're the best team in football," said defensive end Sean Jones. Favre just shrugged. "Can't wait to get them in our place," he said of the Dec. 22 regular-season finale. "We'll be fine. I never thought we'd go undefeated."

Dressing next to Favre, backup Jim McMahon said with an evil grin, "I thought we would. And you screwed it up!"

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