EDEN PRAIRIE (AP) -- To the casual observer, the biggest problem on the Minnesota Vikings' defense last year was its shaky pass coverage. But the key to successful secondary play starts up front.
The Vikings had only 31 sacks last year, a decrease of 15 from the previous season and their lowest total since 1984. That had just as much to do with their 28th-ranked pass defense as an inexperienced, injury-riddled group of defensive backs did.
So one of coach Dennis Green's priorities for 2001 has been to improve his team's quickness on the outside to provide a more consistent pass rush. Chris Hovan, rookie Shawn Worthen -- who's had an impressive preseason -- and Fernando Smith will bring some decent size to the two tackle positions.
Talance Sawyer, who had six sacks in his first season as a starter last year, and Lance Johnstone -- a free-agent acquisition from the Oakland Raiders -- will be the defensive ends.
Carolina at Baltimore, 6:30 p.m.
Kansas City at Jacksonville, 6:30 p.m.
Philadelphia at Tennessee, 7 p.m.
Cleveland at Washington, 7 p.m.
Indianapolis at Minnesota, 7 p.m.
"Every play starts up front," said Johnstone, who had 21 sacks in 1998-99 for the Raiders. "We've got to take two or three giant steps forward to really be effective."
Green has repeatedly said the Vikings will be faster this year.
"They are going to be two guys who can get pressure up the field," Green said of Johnstone and Sawyer. "Talance improved a great deal last year. I think that he will be a double-digit sack man, and I am convinced that Lance will be also."
Another change is the addition of defensive line coach Brian Baker, whose intense style has definitely left an impression on players. Baker believes the line is confidently coming together after a strong showing in the first two exhibition season.
"That gives the secondary some confidence, too, if they know we're getting some strong pressure on up front," Baker said.
The Vikings made 400 tickets available Wednesday afternoon for their preseason game Friday against the Indianapolis Colts. ... Green said most of the starters will play 1 1/2 quarters on Friday. ... With Doug Chapman (thigh bruise) and Moe Williams (sprained foot) being held out of Friday's game, top draft pick Michael Bennett and rookie James Wofford will get most of the carries. ...
The Vikings will hold their annual family barbecue Saturday afternoon while a Ku Klux Klan rally is taking place at the state Capitol in St. Paul. "We decided in contrast to a certain group that's coming to town and preaching a lot of hatred and separation that we would have ours at the exact same time," Green said. "We stand for the positive things in life." ...
The biggest competition in camp as the preseason winds down appears to be at outside linebacker, where veteran Gabe Northern was cut on Monday. Lemanski Hall, a solid special teams contributor last season, is currently on top of the depth chart. Rookies Patrick Chukwurah and Fearon Wright are also competing.
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