Defense carries day for Vikings, who manage with Frerotte

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Antoine Winfield's hit on Jake Delhomme resulted in a touchdown and an eventual victory for the Vikings.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jake Delhomme should have seen Antoine Winfield coming.

Winfield, the hard-hitting Minnesota Vikings cornerback, was blitzing around the right side of Carolina's offensive line, directly in front of the right-handed Delhomme. The Panthers quarterback never seemed to sense the looming, jarring hit that led to a fumble and Winfield's touchdown return that changed the direction of what had been a one-sided game -- a one-sided season -- in Carolina's favor.

"I didn't see him coming," Delhomme admitted after a 20-10 loss to Minnesota on Sunday.

The Vikings feel Delhomme won't be the last to say that.

They will be as obviously visible about their style and intentions as Winfield was of his corner blitz. The momentum of this victory -- the Vikings' first of the young season -- could lead to the dislodging of pending opponents' grip of whatever early season mojo they may have formed. It's just one victory, players said after the game, but they know the ingredients of a slow-forming stew are starting to properly season.

"This was a pivotal game for us," safety Darren Sharper said. "This reminds people that we're the good team that people predicted us to be at the beginning of the season."

David Sherman / Getty Images
It wasn't necessarily pretty, but the job Gus Frerotte did in managing his first start was enough to win.

» Childress, Frerotte on victory

After losing two close games to Green Bay and Indianapolis, hardly slouches, Vikings coach Brad Childress benched starting quarterback Tarvaris Jackson in favor of 37-year-old Gus Frerotte. It was a high-risk decision, especially since Childress was so attached to Jackson and Frerotte is a 37-year-old career journeyman.

After an interception and nearly two quarters of unproductive play to start the game, Childress' gamble had the makings of a disaster. Then came Winfield's play with 1:13 remaining in the first half to tie the game at 10.

Though Frerotte didn't have a hand in evening the score, he came into the second half on level footing. On the Vikings' opening drive of the third quarter, he completed Minnesota's longest pass play of the season, a 48-yarder to wide receiver Bernard Berrian. Then he connected with tight end Visanthe Shiancoe for a 34-yard touchdown -- the Vikings' second-longest pass play of the season.

That is what Childress had in mind when he made the decision to go with the veteran Frerotte over the inexperienced Jackson.

"He did a nice job of pulling the trigger," Childress said of Frerotte, who completed 16-of-28 passes for 204 yards, a touchdown and an interception. "I thought we threw the ball up field pretty well. Basically, he was on task in looking where he needs to look. The one interception was on a tipped ball that he tried to stick on a back shoulder. He had the right idea. He had the right guy (Berrian). That will only get better and better."

As potentially disruptive as a quarterback change could be, that wasn't the case with the Vikings.

"I didn't see anybody's head down or cowering in the locker room, anybody kind of upset in the locker room," Frerotte said about his teammates' reaction this week to the quarterback change. "We didn't have any of that. We have a lot of people who want to win really bad."

The want to win "really bad," not who plays quarterback, is the difference in things positively moving forward for the Vikings, who now hit the road for back-to-back tests against Tennessee and New Orleans.

"Whoever is manning the team, our job is to support him," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Obviously, coach felt we needed to change something up. We just said, 'Let's ride with this and make it work.' "

Players didn't fault Jackson for the team's two losses to open the season or laud Frerotte for helping Minnesota to its much-needed victory. However, it's hard to overlook Frerotte connecting with eight different receivers for a 12.8-yard per-catch average on Sunday. Jackson was averaging just 154 pass yards a game and 5.2 yards per completion in the Vikings' losses to Green Bay and Indianapolis.

The short-yardage throws by Jackson allowed defenses to crowd the line of scrimmage in an attempt to stuff tailback Adrian Peterson -- something that didn't happen in the second half Sunday because Frerotte's intermediate and deep throws allowed Minnesota to have some semblance of a balanced attack.

Balance is a loosely defined word with the Vikings overall. Defense rules the roost.

If the offense can stay on the field long enough for defenders to catch their breath and help the Vikings put up enough points to stay competitive, this group of handsomely paid defenders can have at it.

"If our offense gets three and we hold them to nothing, then we can win games," said Allen, Minnesota's prized offseason acquisition who had three quarterback hurries and one of his team's five sacks against Carolina.

Added safety Darren Sharper: "Our offense scored enough to help us out. Our defense feels that whenever we get up by some points ... you saw our defensive line. It's like they saw blood in the water. They were sharks."

After the Vikings went up 17-10 to start the third quarter, Carolina managed just 73 total yards, four first downs and 15 yards rushing thereafter. Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith, in his debut after serving a two-game suspension, had four catches for 70 yards. Only one of those grabs came in the second half. The Vikings had eight tackles for loss, just three fewer than they had managed in their two previous games combined.

Besides the bump Minnesota gained from Frerotte, defenders said they might be starting to figure it out. The Vikings had just two sacks and had allowed an average of 319 yards in their two losses. They more than doubled their sack total and limited the Panthers to 204 total yards, 47 rushing.

As impressive as those numbers are, had Winfield not come up with the sack, forced fumble and return, the game could have very well gone Carolina's way, which could have caused some serious problems for a Vikings team that was pegged as a Super Bowl contender in the preseason. Winfield made that play, though, reinforcing a point Panthers coach John Fox brought up last week: The talent is too close in the NFL for one team to be hands down, consistently better than others.

The victory elevated the Vikings back into the mix in the NFC North. Though Green Bay is the early season leader, Minnesota and Chicago boast 1-2 records while Detroit remains winless. Minnesota isn't thinking too far ahead, though. Its upcoming games against unbeaten Tennessee and New Orleans is sobering.

"Every week's a new, different test and each week stands on its own merit," center Matt Birk said. "You don't get any bonus points for winning this week and not carrying it over next week."



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