For much of this season, Minnesota’s offense that has been given most of the credit for the Vikings’ impressive start as Daunte Culpepper and Randy Moss have again emerged as one of the best quarterback-receiver tandems in the league.
However, Minnesota’s improved defensive unit has also played a major role in the team’s rise to the top of the conference.
First-year defensive coordinator George O’Leary, who served as the defensive line coach last season, has transformed a much-maligned unit into a cohesive and effective group.
“He’s the one that gets us prepared,” defensive tackle Chris Hovan said of O’Leary, who was forced to resign from the head coaching job at Notre Dame just after accepting it in December 2001 after falsifying his resume.
“He’s the one that gets us the information and puts us in the right position to make plays.”
Making many of those plays has been weakside linebacker Chris Claiborne, signed away from Detroit in the offseason. Claiborne leads the team with 61 total tackles, while adding three sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
The defensive backs are also doing a solid job. Safeties Brian Russell and Corey Chavous have combined for 11 interceptions. Russell, the NFL leader with six picks—one in each game, is a full-time starter for the first time in his second year.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to coach O’Leary,” Russell said. “His personality has really kind of taken over the defense. He’s an emotional guy. We’re getting fumbles, interceptions and sacks, and those types of things happen when you’re playing with emotion.”
While Minnesota has jumped out to a quick start, New York has struggled mightily in its first six games.
The Giants’ offense, heralded as one of the league’s best prior to the season, is managing just 17.5 points per game, ranking 24th in the league.
New York has lost three straight games, including last week’s gutwrenching 14-10 setback to the Eagles last Sunday.
New York dominated most of the play, but an 84-punt return for a touchdown by Brian Westbrook with 1:16 to play gave the Eagles the victory.
“It would be an understatement if I told you that I can’t believe what has happened to us,” Giants Jim Fassel said. “It seems we find a different way (to lose) every time.”
New York topped Philadelphia in yardage (339 to 134), first downs (25-9) and time of possession (35:42-24:18). In the second half, New York limited the Eagles to a mere 23 yards and one first down.
Again, the numbers did not translate into a win.
“They played better than us when they needed to,” Giants running back Tiki Barber said. “That’s all that matters.”