The desperation pass floated into the right corner of the end zone at Sun Devil Stadium last December, and as two Vikings defensive backs raced to deflect the ball, Minnesota's season hung perilously in the balance. If one of them gets there in time to stop Josh McCown's fourth-and-25 heave from landing in the hands of Cardinals receiver Nathan Poole, the Vikings win the game and the NFC North, and make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. If they arrive too late, all of the promising strides made by Minnesota in Mike Tice's second full season as coach--such as the 6--0 start and the NFC-best 28 interceptions--fade into the desert.
When Poole caught the ball, dooming the Vikings to a 9-7 finish, cornerback Denard Walker, strong safety Corey Chavous and the rest of the Minnesota secondary became prime suspects in a criminally negligent collapse. Falling in the final seconds to a team that lost 12 games was, says Vikings assistant secondary coach Kevin Ross, "like a sucker punch to the gut." Though there was plenty of blame to go around, the defensive backs took it the hardest. "It was painful," recalls third-year free safety Brian Russell, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with nine, "but as the off-season went on, we learned to turn it into motivation for this year."
When you play defensive back for the Vikings, your mission is clear: Be proficient enough to allow your offense to outscore the opponent. Quarterback Daunte Culpepper and wideout Randy Moss remain Minnesota's marquee performers; the defensive players they face in practice are attempting to improve their ignominious image. "That was one of the reasons I came here, because I'd heard over the last few years how bad the defense was," says cornerback Antoine Winfield, who signed with the Vikings as a free agent in March after five standout seasons with the Bills. "If we can turn our defense into a strength, we'll have a great shot at getting to the Super Bowl."
The secondary did make some gains last year, allowing no touchdown passes of 40 yards or more after surrendering six in 2002. Chavous, a former cornerback and noted talent scout (teammates call him Mel Kiper Jr. for his knowledge of the draft), became the first Vikings safety to start in the Pro Bowl since Joey Browner in 1990. "We turned our secondary into a strength by getting all those interceptions," says Chavous. "But we weren't good enough at stopping people [the entire game]."
To bolster the defense, the Vikings released Walker, a free-agent signee in 2003, and gave a six-year, $34 million contract to Winfield, a tenacious defender whose physical play belies his 5'9", 180pound frame. Ted Cottrell, who replaced George O'Leary as defensive coordinator, knows Winfield well, having coached him in Buffalo for two seasons (1999 and 2000). "He is a unique player," Cottrell says of Winfield. "He has great explosion and leaping ability, and because he times his jumps so well, it's hard to throw a ball by him."
Tice also lauds the tackling ability of the team's other starting corner, Brian Williams, a third-year player who, Ross says, "has the most potential of all our defensive backs." The 6'2", 204-pound Russell, a former quarterback at Penn and San Diego State, is a big hitter and has been censured in practice for taking shots at Moss and other Minnesota receivers.
Once mocked by his teammates as the "token white guy" in the secondary, Russell emerged as an opportunistic playmaker last season. He still could command more respect from teammates--"Russ got a lot of 'punts' last year, high passes that floated right to him, but I love his range and athletic ability," Winfield says--yet he's sufficiently motivated to take out last year's frustrations on the rest of the league. "We're going after it," Russell says. "We want to win it all, and none of us are hiding from that goal."
Tice's job security may hinge on his secondary's performance. He's in the final year of his contract and is reportedly the league's lowest-paid coach. Perhaps haunted by memories of the play that ended last season, he offers only a measured endorsement of his defensive backfield. "I can't say it's going to be a strength," he says. "But they're not bums, either."
-- Michael Silver
PLAYER ON THE RISE