A handful for the defense



BY SEAN JENSEN
Pioneer Press

VIKINGS REPORT

The Vikings' defense has handled premium running backs such as Frank Gore, Ronnie Brown and Willis McGahee en route to a potential record-breaking season.

But linebacker Napoleon Harris said Sunday's test will be the biggest this season.

"He's a guy who rushed for (1,386) yards and (782) yards receiving," said Harris of St. Louis Rams Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson. "He's the guy that makes that offense go."

Asked what he does well, Harris said, "Everything. Big. Strong. Fast. Quick. Shifty. Good hands."

Harris accidentally repeated Jackson's speed, not surprising because Jackson has a rare combination of size (6 feet 2, 231 pounds) and explosive speed.

Jackson is fifth in the NFL with 88 catches and tied for 32nd in receiving yards. Last week, he topped 100 yards in rushing and in receiving in a 37-31 overtime victory over the Washington Redskins.

Harris said that is why Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt both have more than 1,000 yards receiving.

"You have to stack the box to defend the run first, so those guys benefit," Harris said of Holt and Bruce. "They're all being productive because of everything Steven has been able to do for that offense."

Because the playoffs are out of the question, Vikings linebacker Ben Leber said setting the record for fewest rushing yards allowed for a season since the 1969 AFL-NFL merger would be special.

That record, 60.6 yards a game, set by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, could fall if the Vikings hold the Rams to fewer than 152 yards rushing.

"That's something we take pride," Leber said. "That's something nobody really came into the season saying, 'We're going to be one of the best run defenses in this era, in this modern day.' But this is something obtainable, and we certainly want to go after it."

But Harris insisted the Vikings have another goal above all else.

"I definitely want to do it. But I don't want to compromise the record over the victory," Harris said.

Second helpings: With the loss of Fred Smoot and Cedric Griffin, the Vikings are particularly vulnerable in the secondary. That's not ideal with the Rams' fourth-ranked passing offense coming to the Metrodome against the league's worst pass defense.

"They are very explosive," Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said. "The quarterback has (4,053) yards passing, has only had eight interceptions. They've got two 1,000-yard receivers.

"They are capable of ringing up the scoreboard, and we are excited about meeting those challenges."

Undrafted rookie Charles Gordon will start opposite Antoine Winfield, and Tomlin said safety Dwight Smith has played cornerback in the past. The Vikings also claimed defensive back Michael Hawkins off waivers from the Cleveland Browns on Wednesday.

"It's going to be an all-hands-on-deck mentality," Tomlin said. "It's going to take more than Charles stepping up in order for us to be effective."

Ronyell Whitaker, though, apparently isn't engendering a lot of confidence at Winter Park. He is expected to play on special teams but might not play much on defense.

"We are going to leave no stone unturned in terms of giving ourselves an opportunity to play good football," Tomlin said.

Tomlin defended his team's last-ranked pass defense.

"People that know what they are talking about understand that we are not the worst pass defense team in football," Tomlin said. "We defend more passes than anyone else."

He then rattled off other key categories in which the Vikings' defense is solid.

"Do we need to get better? Heck, yes," Tomlin said, "We want to be No. 1 in every statistical category."

Injury update: The Vikings upgraded receiver Troy Williamson (hamstring), quarterback Brooks Bollinger (shoulder) and punter Chris Kluwe (hamstring) from questionable to probable, meaning there is a "virtual certainty" that they will play Sunday.

Briefly: As of Thursday evening, the Vikings had 400 tickets remaining for Sunday's game against the Rams.