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Friday, December 24, 2004
Updated: December 26, 11:10 PM ET
Vikings fail to tackle opportunity

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- In a game that might force league stat freaks to create yet another esoteric category, yards after missed tackles, it was altogether fitting on Friday afternoon that Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre got over on the Minnesota Vikings by going underneath his team's bitter rival.

Emulating a theme actually introduced early in the Christmas Eve matchup by an equally shoddy Packers defense, a unit that nearly came undone itself by its countless whiffs on would-be tackles in the first half, the Vikings' backside seven seemed to be transformed into human turnstiles in the closing minutes.

Yeah, it was kind of uncharacteristic for us to miss so many tackles, and it got to the point where it was like an epidemic. It was like, we were out there saying to ourselves, 'Can somebody please make a tackle here, huh?' But at least we got better as the game wore on.
Darren Sharper, Packers safety

And the brilliant Favre, rallying his teammates to a 34-31 victory that secured Green Bay a third straight division title and left the wounded Vikings pondering the specter of yet another late-season collapse, took full advantage of the glaring Minnesota shortcoming.

Essentially the underachieving Vikings missed another shot at an NFC North crown because they missed too many tackles.

"The way things were going, I think Brett just wanted to get the ball into our hands, and to let us do our thing," said wide receiver Javon Walker, whose 31-yard catch-and-run set up Ryan Longwell's winning 29-yard field goal as time expired. "We were breaking out of tackles, they were missing some, and it all added up to a lot of yards. Down the stretch, there was a feeling in the huddle that they couldn't stop us."

No one could blame the Green Bay skill-position performers for that sort of confidence, given that the Vikings were playing like flailing matadors in the secondary. On the final series of the frenetically-played game, a possession that lasted 11 snaps and that totaled 76 yards, Minnesota linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks missed at least four tackles.

On second-and-three from the Green Bay 20-yard line, Favre dumped the ball to nickel tailback Tony Fisher, who shook a safety for an eight-yard gain. Ole! On second-and-15, Favre tossed a screen to Fisher, who ran through a Corey Chavous arm tackle for 21 yards. Ole! Two players later, it was an underneath crossing route to wideout Donald Driver, who shook past Terrence Shaw for 18 yards. Ole! And then it was the 31-yarder to Walker, who muscled past safety Brian Russell on a short hook route, ole to move the ball to the Minnesota seven-yard line.

By unofficial count the Packers gained 42 yards, more than half their output on the final drive, after missed tackles. The total for both teams, on a day when the Packers and the Vikings combined for 868 yards, was incalculable.

From scrimmage, the teams had a dozen plays of 20 yards or more, and eight of those were for 25-plus yards. Most of those big gulps of real estate resulted from missed tackles. The tackling was poor on special teams as well as both teams enjoyed excellent field position because of long kickoff returns.

No doubt, tackling has become -- over the last several seasons -- the NFL's most poorly executed fundamental, in part because coaches don't practice it. But if you've got a kid at home who wants to learn the basics the right way, well, Friday's contest here was so pitiful in terms of textbook tackling, burn the video in your Yuletide fire before he can get his hands on it.

There were 38 points scored in a wild second quarter and maybe 38 misses tackles, too.

Minnesota will likely qualify for a wild-card berth -- a loss by either Carolina or St. Louis this weekend will allow the Vikings to back into postseason play -- but there continues to be something missing with this team. Certainly the Vikings possess some of the league's most scintillating playmakers, but this is not a club of notable grit.

At one point in what was an incredibly entertaining game, Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper authored touchdown passes on three consecutive throws: a 12-yarder to wide receiver Randy Moss, a 68-yard score by wideout Nate Burleson, and a 38-yard screen pass to tailback Michael Bennett. On the first score of the unusual trifecta, Moss pushed off in the end zone, creating sufficient separation from Green Bay cornerback Al Harris, as Culpepper scrambled to his right.
Ryan Longwell
The Packers capped off the game-winning drive with Longwell's game-winning field goal.
But on the next two touchdowns, Burleson and Bennett didn't need to shove off, since Green Bay tacklers essentially sloughed off. On the Burleson touchdown which lifted the Vikings into a 14-7 lead, Packers rookie and first-round cornerback Ahmad Carroll badly missed on a tackle attempt and then safety Darren Sharper overran the play. The Bennett score, which nudged Minnesota back into a 21-14 advantage resulted from poor effort and even worse tackling technique from middle linebacker Nick Barnett and another first-year corner, third-rounder Joey Thomas.

"Yeah, it was kind of uncharacteristic for us to miss so many tackles, and it got to the point where it was like an epidemic," said Sharper. "It was like, we were out there saying to ourselves, 'Can somebody please make a tackle here, huh?' But at least we got better as the game wore on."

The Vikings, on the flip side, grew markedly worse. The Minnesota linebackers and the secondary corps have been suspect much of the season, don't take the ball away very often, and aren't particularly sound. Little wonder Favre threw for 365 yards, completing 30 of 43 attempts, with three touchdown passes and one interception.

The interception, a terrific individual play by weakside linebacker Chris Claiborne, who returned the theft 15 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 8:18 remaining in the game, represented Favre's one glaring error. But unlike other outings, where he has been prone to throwing interceptions in bunches, the Packers star hardly panicked. Probably because he knew he could get the ball to his receivers underneath the Minnesota coverages, and allow them to author meaningful plays.

Favre came back from the interception to march the Packers 80 yards in 13 plays, tying the contest on a three-yard inside bullet to Driver on fourth-and-goal with just 3:34 left. And then after the Packers defense forced a punt, on a drive in which the Vikings simply shot themselves in the foot with two offensive line penalties, Favre went to work on the game-winning foray.

"These guys are great receivers and they're going to make plays for you," Favre said. "Sometimes you just have to get it to them and let them do their thing, you know?"

Indeed, the impressive Walker is a physically imposing receiver, a wideout who can just run through tackles. And Driver is a resourceful player with an uncanny knack for finding a hole in the secondary on critical, third-down plays. The two combined for 16 catches, 252 yards and two touchdowns on Friday afternoon, and served notice that the Packers might be a team capable of venturing surprisingly deep into the playoffs.

Especially if their postseason opponents don't tackle any better than the Vikings did.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.