SI Vault
NFC Central
Joe Marshall
September 04, 1978
Minnesota keeps hanging on, but winning in this division is getting tougher and the Vikings aren't world-beaters at defending against the run. The defensive line still exhibits the ancient trio of Alan Page, Carl Eller and Jim Marshall. Their strength has always been rushing the passer, but they aren't even particularly good at that anymore. Eller is 36, Marshall 40, and Page, who has weighed as much as 260 but has now dropped to 225, is 33. Opponents are running at the Vikes more and more often, which makes sense—Minnesota allowed the opposition 4.05 yards a carry last year. This year Coach Bud Grant may substitute more freely with three recent first draft picks, Defensive Ends Mark Mullaney and Randy Holloway and Defensive Tackle James (Duck) White.
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September 04, 1978

Nfc Central

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Detroit owner William Clay Ford has made a major change in the Lions' organizational philosophy by turning full control of his football operation over to new Coach Monte Clark. In the past, personnel matters were handled by General Manager Russ Thomas, who stood pat with a weak hand for too long. As Clark has pointed out, "This team didn't have a player in the Pro Bowl, so how good can the talent be?"

Fortunately for the Lions, Clark has a reputation for motivating lesser talent. He is also adept at building offensive lines, a real problem area for Detroit, which has given Quarterback Greg Landry the league's worst protection in each of the last two years. And Landry needs a lot of time before the Lions' receivers can get open. Only Luther Blue has speed at wide receiver, and he has trouble catching the football.

Nor has the line opened many holes for a good set of running backs. Dexter Bussey has the quickness to be a big gainer if he can stay healthy. If former No. 1 draft choice Lawrence Gaines, a 240-pounder, recovers from his third knee operation, he could give Detroit power at fullback. Whoever plays, Clark will use the run more than past Lion coaches have.

Detroit's defensive line should be helped by the menacing 6'6", 260-pound rookie defensive end, Al (Bubba) Baker. At Colorado State, Baker—a menace even to himself—branded a "B" onto his biceps with a shaped and heated coat hanger. Detroit plays the run well and puts adequate pressure on the quarterback. However, the secondary, particularly Cornerback James Hunter, too often gets burned deep. First draft choice Luther Bradley, a defensive back from Notre Dame has replaced Lem Barney who was waived. Punter Tom Skladany, acquired from Cleveland, should keep opponents at least a bomb's distance from the goal line.

Tampa Bay has the longest winning streak in the NFC Central—the Bucs' two wins at last season's end, over New Orleans and St. Louis—and that has given Coach John McKay's troops a positive attitude. Now, if the Bucs just had an offense.

Last year Tampa Bay ranked dead last in yards per rush, yards per pass and points. The team was shut out six times. Its offensive line is too much of a disaster area for the Bucs to expect much improvement. Still, there is hope in other quarters. Rookie Quarterback Doug Williams, a first draft choice out of Grambling, has the arm if not the experience to unseat veterans Gary Huff and Mike Boryla. Second draft choice Johnny Davis from Alabama is a piano-playing, gospel-singing, fierce-blocking addition at fullback. He should help last year's top draft choice, Ricky Bell, improve on his 436 yards of rushing.

Defensively, the Bucs are showing signs of maturity. McKay's 3-4 defense is tough to run against. The two Selmons, Defensive End Lee Roy and Linebacker Dewey, and Linebacker David Lewis all appear headed for stardom. Dave Pear is one of pro football's better nose tackles. The front wall could help Tampa Bay's only-average pass defense, however, by applying more pressure. McKay hopes to get a semblance of a pass rush from former All-Pro Wally Chambers, who brought a bad knee from Chicago in return for next year's first draft pick. Some Buc observers fear that trade is an ominous sign of impatience on the part of McKay.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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