Publish date:

Witness For The Defense The Vikings' offense gets the attention, but as Arizona discovered, Minnesota has improved dramatically on the other side of the ball

There's usually only one area on the cluttered desk of Minnesota
Vikings defensive coordinator Foge Fazio that's clear. On the
lower righthand corner, beside stacks of scouting reports, play
charts and legal pads full of defensive formations, is a small
space reserved for four mounds of a rubbery substance that
resembles Silly Putty. Fazio likes to say the stuff is for
strengthening his hands, "so when I grab a guy he'll know I'm
not messing around." But the truth is, the 59-year-old,
silver-haired Fazio, who is half drill sergeant and half
grandfather, uses the putty to relieve stress.

Late last week, as the Vikings prepared to play the Arizona
Cardinals in an NFC divisional playoff game at the Metrodome,
Fazio was asked about containing the Cardinals' cardiac
quarterback, Jake Plummer. During his answer Fazio twirled and
twisted the putty into knots, pounded it flat on the desk like
pizza dough and squeezed it so hard in his fist that it oozed
from the cracks between his fingers. Two days later Fazio's
defense did almost the same thing to Plummer as Minnesota
crushed Arizona 41-21 to advance to the NFC Championship Game on
Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons. The first 18 minutes and 36
seconds against the Cardinals were glorious for the Vikings'
defense, which has improved dramatically since last season--its
ranking went from 29th in 1997 to 13th this year, and it had the
second-highest turnover ratio in the NFL, plus-14--but has been
overshadowed by the most prolific offense in NFL history.

During that opening stretch Minnesota jumped to a 17-0 lead as
the Vikings pummeled Plummer, who was 0 for 4 passing with two
interceptions. Until 11:24 of the second quarter the Cardinals
had had the ball for only 1:42 and had zero net yards and no
first downs. In other words the Arizona offense was putty in
Fazio's hands. Yet Fazio, who has coached in college and the NFL
for 33 years, including a stint as Dan Marino's head coach at
Pitt from 1982 to '85, was having his name butchered on national
television. (It's Foge, as in loge, and Fazio, as in Fox's
announcers are lazy-o.) "It's clear here by fan interest and
marketing and media attention that the focus is on offense,"
Minnesota nosetackle Jerry Ball said three days before the game.
"We've learned to live without credit. We just keep telling
ourselves the old adage: Offense wins games, but defense wins

After the Vikes' defense held on for a 38-31 win over the St.
Louis Rams on Sept. 13--it blew a 24-10 halftime lead but
preserved the win by tackling quarterback Tony Banks just short
of the goal line on the game's final play--Fazio received a bear
hug on the sideline from owner Red McCombs, who hollered at him,
"I knew we had 'em all the way!" Later, McCombs sent a photo of
their postgame embrace to Fazio with the same words inscribed on
it. That phrase is an apt description of the Vikings defense.
"With the kind of offense this team has, the defense may never
have to win a game," says middle linebacker Ed McDaniel.
"Usually all we have to do is stop a team just once and the game
is over. That's how it works here."

If Minnesota is to win the Super Bowl, however, Fazio's troops
may need to step up at some point. Is the defense up to the
challenge? The answer may come this week when the Falcons and
Jamal Anderson, the NFC's leading rusher, try to control the
ball to keep the Vikings' offense off the field. (In Minnesota's
only defeat of the season, a 27-24 loss to the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers, the Bucs ran for 246 yards and held the ball for
33:35.) Against offenses ranked among the NFL's top 10 this
season, Minnesota has given up an average of 20 points.

On Sunday, Plummer bounced back from his rough start to finish
23 of 41 for 242 yards, with no touchdowns, two interceptions
and two fumbles. Though Minnesota mounted an inspired goal line
stand with less than two minutes remaining, it failed several
times to put the game away with a big defensive stop. Once again
the Vikes' offense--which had three touchdowns in the air, two
on the ground, 26 first downs, 5.2 yards per carry and a 73%
conversion rate on third downs--was their best defense.

Still, Fazio's unit showed the aggressive style he demands. "The
attitude the defense carries on the field is to kick ass, have
some fun and don't worry about anything except winning," says
McDaniel, who has 15 tackles for loss and seven sacks in 1998.
"That comes from Foge."

Fazio, the son of Italian immigrants, grew up in the steel mill
town of Coraopolis, in the football-rich region of western
Pennsylvania, and played center for Pitt. The nickname, Foge,
stuck after Fazio had difficulty pronouncing fudge as a child.
(Fazio's given names are Serafino Dante, the former being the
Italian word for little angel and the latter being the name of
the Italian poet who surveyed the Underworld.) One friend from
Pittsburgh describes Fazio as "impossible to dislike," but he
has been known to slap the table in the Vikings' locker room so
hard it leaves the players' ears ringing. Judging by his
legendary sideline eruptions, triggered by plays such as
Plummer's 39-yard pass to Adrian Murrell late in the third
quarter on Sunday, fudge may be the only f word Fazio has ever
had trouble saying.

With the game in hand and the offense running out the clock,
Fazio walked around the sideline congratulating his players.
First, there was the unit's star, perennial All-Pro tackle John
Randle. Then Minnesota's only new starter in 1998, cornerback
Jimmy Hitchcock, who led the Vikings with seven interceptions.
Fazio smiled at strong safety Robert Griffith, who had
intercepted Plummer twice in the first half. Fazio then shook
hands with McDaniel, whom he moved inside late in the '97 season
and who this season earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Finally, Fazio embraced Ball, a football nomad who has found a
home in Minnesota after playing for five teams in the last seven
years. "We've got 11 different voices on this defense," Ball
said, "but Foge has us all singing the same song."

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Crash-landing Dwayne Rudd (57) and the rest of the defense dominated Plummer early in the Vikings' victory.[Dwayne Rudd tackling Jake Plummer]