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Vikings, Saints face player suspensions, so will there be rough starts?

Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Pat and Kevin Williams are trying to clear their names, play their games and challenge legal rulings they believe are unjust. But to many followers of the team and the NFL, the possible four-game suspension of the Williamses for testing positive for a banned diuretic last season is hardly as compelling a story as a guy who has never played a snap for the Vikings maybe coming to Minnesota if his arm says it's a go.

Outside of the legalities of what's going on, however, no one should dismiss what the possible suspension of Pat and Kevin Williams could mean. The Williamses aren't related, but they're arguably the soul of a great Vikings defense that is great because of them. If they are suspended for four games, even Brett Favre's potential arrival to play quarterback for Minnesota might not be enough to offset the impact made by the tandem of immovable land mines.

The Vikings led the NFL by holding opponents to 76.9 yards rushing per game. Not once was an opponent the leading rusher in any game. Not once.

The Williamses are tone-setters, meaning they dictate what opposing offenses do against the Vikings because they can't run the ball up the middle.

That was, in large part, because Pat Williams, the 36-year-old, 317-pound nose tackle, re-set the line of scrimmage upon each snap of the ball last season. Kevin Williams, the 28-year-old three-technique tackle, blew through gaps with enough ferocity to register 60 tackles and 8.5 sacks. Make no mistake: Minnesota is much better in all defensive phases with Williams and Williams lined up side-by-side.

The reason for concern is this: Pat and Kevin Williams were among several players who last season tested positive for bumetanide, an ingredient in a diuretic that is banned because it can be used to mask steroid use. All players were suspended for four games, but punishment was deferred because of the need to flush out the legalities in court. So here we are.

The Williamses claimed that the NFL knew the banned substance was part of an over-the-counter diuretic called StarCaps. In the most recent court ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson dismissed Williams' claims, which would signal a victory for the NFL.

However, Magnuson opened the door for a reprieve for the Williamses when he said two of their claims could be heard in state court on the grounds that in Minnesota, there are laws protecting employees from discipline if they use legal substances in their leisure time away from the workplace. The NFL appealed the ruling Tuesday, saying federal law and collectively bargained labor rules supersede state laws.

"The NFL has a policy that prohibits the use of performance-enhancing drugs," the NFL said in a statement. "That policy applies nationwide to all 32 NFL teams and their employees."

There will be Law and Order at some point, but the hearing in state court is probably the Williamses' final shot to avoid a suspension. Working on the presumption that the Williamses' legal challenges don't work in their favor and the two tackles must sit out the first four games of the 2009 season, the Vikings might have drawn a best-case scenario, in the midst of a not-so-ideal-case scenario.

Minnesota opens the season with Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco and Green Bay. The Packers' 112.8 rushing yards per game last season was the best of the group, but it ranked just 17th-best in the NFL. The Browns ranked 26th (100.3 yards per game), the 49ers 27th (99.9) and the Lions 30th (83.2) when it came to running the ball.

Helping offset the potential loss of the Williamses is the return of stud middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who missed most of last season after breaking his foot. If the rotation of backups provides even a sliver of resistance, Henderson and the rest of the Vikings' stout defense might be able to make due until the Williamses return for a Oct. 11 road game against the St. Louis Rams.

No one should be fooled by a schedule or an opponent, though.

Super Bowl combatants Pittsburgh and Arizona had two of the worst running games in the NFL last season. The Steelers managed 105.6 yards per game, ranking them 23rd in the NFL. The Cardinals were dead last in running the ball, gaining 73.6 yards per game.

No team is safe with some of its best players on the sideline.

Besides the fact the Vikings become vulnerable the second that one or both of the Williamses aren't on the field, the NFC North, the division that Minnesota (10-6) won by one game over the Chicago Bears last season, seemingly has become a tad more competitive.

The Bears added quarterback Jay Cutler and tackle Orlando Pace to their offense. The Packers stacked up on defense as they transition to a 3-4, and the Lions have been very active in adding key defensive personnel, the top overall pick in quarterback Matthew Stafford and a promising tight end in Brandon Pettigrew.

Any loss could be critical to the Vikings' playoff hopes, but one that comes because they're gashed by Jamal Lewis (Cleveland), Ryan Grant (Green Bay), Frank Gore (San Francisco) or Kevin Smith (Detroit) early in the season could make things far less palatable.

The Vikings aren't the only ones dealing with this situation.

New Orleans Saints defensive ends Will Smith and Charles Grant also are facing four-game suspensions for testing positive for bumetanide. Former Saints running back Deuce McAllister also tested positive, as did former Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who's now with the Lions.

Unfortunately for Smith and Grant, Louisiana doesn't have the possible state protection that Minnesota does, so their suspensions seem all but certain.

Smith and Grant are the pass rushers whom New Orleans needs to make its suspect defense less suspect and help the team get through the NFC South, arguably the NFL's most competitive division. The Saints don't have much of a grace period, either, at the start of their season. After the season opener against Detroit, New Orleans faces the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills on the road before a Week 4 home game against the New York Jets. Things only become tougher for the Saints after that.

The hard and fast rule that could condemn each player is that they are responsible for what goes into their bodies. The hard and fast rule that could condemn the Vikings and Saints is that their teams are responsible for what goes on to their fields.

Minus key cogs in their defensive lines, those responsibilities could be much more difficult.

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