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Updated: September 14th, 2011 11:25pm
Zulgad: Opponents can sleep easy if Vikings don't find vertical threat

Zulgad: Opponents can sleep easy if Vikings don't find vertical threat

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

There seemed to be a collective sigh of relief among the Vikings faithful on the night of Aug. 27.

This came after Donovan McNabb connected with Bernard Berrian on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of the Vikings' third preseason game against Dallas.

Those sitting in the Metrodome and watching at home echoed similar feelings:

1. McNabb, unlike Brett Favre, seemed to have no issue with throwing the ball deep to Berrian.

2) More important, the Vikings appeared as if they could loosen up defenses so Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson would have sufficient room to operate when handed the ball.

Shame on all for jumping to these conclusions so quickly.

There are a plethora of areas in which one could express concern after the Vikings opened the regular season with a 24-17 loss Sunday in which McNabb threw for an embarrassingly low 39 yards against the San Diego Chargers.

Among them: The Vikings ran only 43 plays; the tight ends, supposedly a major part of new coordinator Bill Musgrave's passing offense, did not catch a ball and were only targeted twice; and the Vikings converted only one of five third downs in the second half.

But perhaps the biggest worry should have been that, of the 15 passes attempted by McNabb, only one was a deep attempt. That was a fourth-quarter shot that was intended for Berrian but ended up being short and broken up.

That non-completion caused a flashback to the same Dallas game and a play to which we all should have paid more attention.

In the second quarter, McNabb again looked for Berrian on a deep pass of 37 yards. But this time, the receiver was covered in the end zone, had to go up and battle for the ball and didn't come down with it.

On Sunday, Berrian had to fight Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason for possession and lost out.

Part of the reason Favre was so brilliant in 2009 was he was working with Sidney Rice, who has the ability to use his 6-foot-4 frame to battle defenders for the any football thrown in his vicinity.

The Vikings wanted to retain Rice once the NFL lockout ended but were unwilling to pay the type of guaranteed money ($18.5 million) the Seattle Seahawks were willing to give the free agent.

It was hard to blame the Vikings, given Rice's injury history and the fact he had missed much of the 2010 season after undergoing hip surgery. Rice already missed the Seahawks opener last because of a shoulder injury.

The problem is that when Rice walked out the door, so did there one legitimate threat to stretch the field and make Peterson's life easier.

It can be debated how much Berrian has left in the tank and whether he still has the speed to be an elite down-the-field threat on go routes. But what can't be debated is this:

McNabb, who will turn 35 in November, doesn't have the arm strength of Favre and is in need of a wide receiver who can make an adjustment on the deep ball to beat his defender.

As Favre learned, this isn't Berrian's strength. Air out the perfect deep pass to Berrian, and he'll catch it in stride. But throw a jump ball, and odds are good Berrian won't come down with it.

This means McNabb might need another option when it comes to stretching the field, and it's uncertain if that guy is on the roster.

Percy Harvin is the best athlete among the Vikings receivers, but ideally, he lines up as a slot receiver, catches a 12- to 15-yard pass, breaks a couple of tackles and gets 25 yards or more.

This doesn't mean Harvin, who stands 5-11, can't stretch the field on occasion by outmuscling a defensive back on a deep route -- but that's not his ideal role. If it becomes necessary, the Vikings might have no alternative but to turn to Harvin in these situations.

Michael Jenkins, who is 6-4, is entering his eighth NFL season and, like Greg Camarillo, is probably best used as a possession receiver.

The final option for McNabb could be 6-foot-2 Devin Aromashodu, but he is the biggest unknown of the Vikings wide receivers. Aromashodu caught only 10 passes for the Chicago Bears last season but two years ago did have 24 receptions, including a 39-yard touchdown catch in overtime to beat the Vikings in a December game.

As they prepare to open their home schedule on Sunday against Tampa Bay, coach Leslie Frazier and his staff likely are just hoping McNabb and Berrian will find a way to get on the same page and recapture the chemistry that flashed so briefly against Dallas.

If that doesn't happen, defensive coordinators will be able to put their sole focus on stopping Peterson and sleep easy knowing the guy the Vikings wanted as their vertical threat is now living in Seattle.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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