Defense will have new look in 2005

MANKATO, Minn. -- The Vikings said "no mas" to the distractions that went with the excitement of Randy Moss. They traded game-breaking skills for calm and efficiency. Though on paper the Moss trade favored the Raiders, the Vikings' moves after the trade might be their ticket to the Super Bowl.

After moving Moss, the Vikings went to work rebuilding the defense. The signings of defensive tackle Pat Williams and middle linebacker Sam Cowart to join cornerback Antoine Winfield have created a "Buffalo Bills West" power base for the defense. Too bad Sam Rogers and Henry Jones retired because defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell would have had most of his favorite players from his Buffalo days.

"We have the old guys together, and we're pretty excited," Cottrell said. "They can still play. They are still productive players. We will improve against the run with Pat on the defensive line. Sam Cowart improved our leadership at middle linebacker."

But can the Vikings actually be a better team after giving up on the game's best offensive threat? They think so. On the training camp practice field, these Vikings clearly march to a different beat than in the past. Moss was hip-hop and flair. The new Vikings are pop-pop, the sound of hard hits and hard work. Safety Darren Sharper, signed as a free agent, decks anyone who ventures into the middle of the field. Cowart and E.J. Henderson smack runners with quick closing speed.

The focus is creating an environment in which a major part of the Vikings' team personality is their defense. To accomplish this, Mike Tice brought in five new defensive starters who use their heads to think on the field and their helmets to impose their wills. Williams, Cowart, Napoleon Harris, Sharper and Fred Smoot represent the new face of the Vikings. Throw in first-round pass-rusher Erasmus James, who is holding out, and the new-look Vikings are becoming a team of defensive playmakers.

"I'm loving this defense; it's a great defense," Smoot said. "I've been in Washington. I learned you can have an all-star cast but they still don't make a team. The guys we brought in still have a lot to prove, which should make them good. Darren Sharper has a chip on his shoulder after leaving Green Bay. Sam Cowart has a chip on his shoulder after playing outside linebacker for the Jets. I have a chip on my shoulder because people don't respect my game. Pat Williams will show his worth playing next to Kevin Williams. Napoleon Harris wants to prove he was worth the Randy Moss trade."

The talk around camp is about making the Vikings a top-five defense. The Vikings haven't finished higher than 23rd in the defensive stats since 1999. They'd score a touchdown and give up a touchdown. The Vikings of the past two years started fast and couldn't finish.

These Vikings want the big finish, and Sharper is one who sees that happening. For the past three years, Sharper, a Packers defensive leader, watched the Vikings try to catch his Packers in the NFC North. Until Minnesota beat Green Bay in last year's playoffs, the Packers had always had the Vikings' number, slipping away with three division titles and the last laugh. Sharper believes he has moved to the new kings of the division.

"You can see the team we have here compared to the team they have there, and I help to give us the upper hand," Sharper said. "The Packers had the advantage because they were consistent. The last couple of years, the Vikings jumped out but weren't able to finish. This year, we are going to find a way to finish. It's getting out to that three-game lead and holding on to it and not getting that downhill slide."

There is no need to panic about the offense. Despite the absence of Moss, Daunte Culpepper still arches those missiles 40 yards downfield and they are still caught. The offensive line is massive and has more depth. Despite the suspension of halfback Onterrio Smith, the Vikings have plenty of runners, with Michael Bennett, Moe Williams and Mewelde Moore. The post-Moss Vikings might not score as quickly, but they still have the potential to rank in the top five offensively because they have Culpepper.

"There are so many different things we can do without Randy," Sharper said. "That guy who is pulling the trigger is just like Michael Vick. He can tuck the ball and run and get you another four downs."

Culpepper doesn't have to take a backseat to Moss anymore. This is his team. He leads. Teammates follow. Moss often took too much criticism -- given that he still made big plays with more regularity than any player in the sport. Still, he was temperamental. If things didn't go his way, he'd change his routes and vocalize his displeasures.

The 2005 Vikings offense won't have the artistry of Moss making big catches, but Culpepper still has the potential to repeat his 41-touchdown season of 2004. He'll still be in the MVP race at the end of the season.

"Offensively, I don't think we will miss a beat," Culpepper said. "We've got five good offensive linemen doing a great job. We've got five backs, and we have been focusing on the running game and being more effective in the running game. The five receivers we have are really good and they work hard."

Perhaps the most noticeable change in training camp is how the defense can better test and challenge the offense in practice. Cornerbacks Smoot, Winfield and Brian Williams can run with this fast group of receivers and contest every Culpepper pass in practice. Running against the Vikings' defense is that much tougher. Williams is a 335-pound immovable stump at nose tackle.

In past camps, the Vikings' defense couldn't match up to the Vikings' offense. Now, it can.

"When you've got two guys up front like Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, it's going to be tough already," Culpepper said. "Our front seven is real good. It's going to be tough to run. We're stacked on defense."

The five new starters on defense are playmakers. Since 2000, no player has intercepted more passes than Sharper (30). Pat Williams is one of the game's best run-stoppers. Harris will play on the strong side against the tight end, but Cottrell's scheme will allow him to blitz, something he hasn't done since his college days at Northwestern. Cowart still has the range and skills to be a 100-tackle middle linebacker.

And Smoot can match up against any wide receiver in the receiver-rich NFC North.

"You put Fred on the field with Antoine Winfield and you've got two of the best corners in the league, you've got a one-two punch," Cottrell said. "Fred is deceivingly quick. He's got those long arms and long legs, and he's very competitive."

With the Vikings, Smoot is showing a better work ethic. He committed extra time in the offseason program to lifting weights. He lifted so much that he gained 8 pounds of muscle. In the final days of lifting before camp, though, Smoot sprained his neck trying to push heavy weights over his head. Though he missed the first few days of practice, Smoot found out Tuesday that he suffered no structural damage to the neck and will be fine.

For years, the Vikings have been trying to make do with talented, young linebackers who tended to over-pursue and make mental mistakes. The signing of Cowart, who played in just five games last year for the Jets because of injury, should remedy that. Cowart is a leader who will put the linebackers in the right position to make plays. Plus, he can still play.

"His range is still good," Cottrell said. "By not playing a lot last year, he didn't take a lot of hits. Plus, he's so smart. He still has the explosiveness and quickness."

Cowart ran into a career crisis in Buffalo and New York the past couple of years because those teams wanted to make him an outside linebacker. Cowart's best game is being in the middle of the field, reading plays and flowing to the ball.

"I'm doing what I want to do here -- playing middle linebacker," Cowart said. "I went to New York and I told them that I wasn't an outside linebacker. Then when I couldn't do it, I was ridiculed. Last year, they moved me to middle linebacker and I did well before I got hurt. Then, they were saying, 'He can't play; he's washed up.'"

Both Sharper and Cowart look to the front four and see what they believe is the most talented front four in football. Kevin and Pat Williams form one of the most dominating defensive tackle interiors in football. They Vikings have talented pass-rushers with Lance Johnstone, Kenechi Udeze and James. Minnesota can chase you down on the pass and stuff you on the run.

"Everybody is just jelling right now," Pat Williams said. "This team here is ready on both sides of the ball. I think that will lead to great things. My job is just knocking people back and making plays. Kevin Williams is a 24-hour-a-day worker, and he's in his own world now and is a mad beast in the middle."

Minus Moss, the Vikings changed their personality. So far, they like it.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.