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Healthy Bennett is key to Vikings' turnaround - ESPN - 7/9/2003


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Healthy Bennett is key to Vikings' turnaround

By Darrell Trimble

NFL Insider

Wednesday, July 9

Updated: July 9

10:19 AM ET

The Minnesota Vikings have spent the better part of the offseason trying to upgrade their much-maligned defense so they could end their two-year hiatus from the playoffs, but it may be their high-powered offense that betrays them.

Michael Bennett, the team's leading rusher, might not be healthy enough to practice when training camp opens on July 26. Bennett had surgery on his left foot in late March to repair a "Jones fracture," an injury to the fifth metatarsal bone. Bennett suffered the injury when his foot came down awkwardly while running on a treadmill at the team's headquarters. The recovery time for the procedure is typically six weeks, but things have not gone smoothly for the third-year veteran.

According to the St. Paul Pioneer press, Bennett has complained recently of soreness in the foot. He continues to work out daily at Winter Park and the training staff is keeping a close eye on the team's prize tailback.

Bennett burst onto the national scene last November after he had runs of over 60 yards in three consecutive games, an NFL record. Bennett finished the season with 1,296 yards rushing and a hefty 5.1 yard-per-carry average, which ranked fourth in the league. But 2003 has already started off on a sour note.

First, Bennett was injured then he was shot at after a confrontation at a local nightclub. Now, he might not be able to participate in a portion of training camp.

But the Vikings did draft rookie running back Onterrio Smith in the fourth round as insurance in case such a thing happened, and this could be the opportunity for him to shine.

With the injury to Willis McGahee, some scouts thought that Smith was the most well-rounded running back in the draft. That's not saying much because the running back class was so weak, but it was a surprise that he fell as far as he did. No one was more shocked than Smith, who has since nicknamed himself "SOD", short for Steal Of the Draft.

The team has been impressed by his size and speed and is planning on using him to return kicks. But if Bennett's injury prohibits him from carrying a full load, Smith will be asked to pick up the slack. Last season, Bennett and his backup, Moe Williams, had 98 percent of the carries by running backs, but that might not be the case this year.

The Vikings had the No. 1 rushing offense in the league last season and part of that was due to their excellent blocking up front. Their line could be better this year with the maturation of Bryant McKinnie and the acquisition of Mike Rosenthal, so even if Bennett can't go the running game could still function at a high level.

Last year, despite being the red zone running back, Williams averaged 4.9 yards per carry. That's because no matter who lined up in the backfield, the line opened holes. Even Doug Chapman, the third back, had 89 yards on 12 carries.

Nonetheless, Bennett is a proven commodity, and Smith and Williams aren't. If the Vikings would have to do without Bennett for an extended period of time they would be putting the fate of the running game, and their playoff hopes, in unproven hands. And that could hinder the Vikes from coming through on coach Mike Tice's guarantee of reaching the playoffs. Unless, of course, Smith really is the SOD.

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the key for the Vikings is Culpepper's return to form. He lost his confidence and started to make poor decisions last season and looked to be in a funk.

whether Tice is the answer is anyone's guess. The defense couldn't get much worse than it has been the past 3 or 4 years.

Remember when the Vikings switched Robert Tate from wide receiver to cornerback during the season because Cris Dishman was getting burned like a thin piece of toast? :)

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