The Green Bay Packers prepare to face a potentially potent yet Randy Moss-less Minnesota Vikings offense. A year ago such an offense could have picked on oft-penalized Packers cornerback Ahmad Carroll, but the Vikings may be well-advised against doing so this year.
"Ahmad's doing a great job," cornerback Al Harris said. "He's real conscious of the penalties. He works on it at practice, and you can see that on gameday."
After committing 11 penalties during his 14 games last year and four against the Detroit Lions in Week One of this season, he has been flagged just once. He also has racked up one of the secondary's three interceptions.
Head coach Mike Sherman said the second-year player has made progress but wants to see more consistency before praising him lavishly.
"He's close. I don't want to jump out there just yet," he said. "He has to show it week in and week out."
Because Carroll has played effectively during the last three weeks, Sherman said he solidified his role as the starting left cornerback. That counts as no small accomplishment, considering Joey Thomas entered training camp as the starter and won that job against the Cleveland Browns in Week Two.
Collecting six interceptions and performing effectively on an every-down basis, however, remain more important to Carroll than securing the starting spot.
"It's no satisfaction to me," Carroll said. "I want be more consistent. I have goals, and I haven't reached them yet."
The manner in which Carroll accepted his promotion signifies how far he has come since a rookie year featuring uneven performances on the field and sometimes brash conduct off of it.
"He's grown, and it comes with time," Harris said. "I see a lot more mature player than last year."
Carroll worked hard during the offseason on his footwork to reduce his pass interference penalties. While he continues those drills before and after practice, Carroll credits his recent performances to a better mindset at practice rather than a change in technique.
"It's just basically going out there and taking practice to heart," Carroll said. "I work hard in practice so when the game gets there you're ready to have fun."
Safety Earl Little, an eight-year veteran, has noticed the change in Carroll's mental focus. He attributes his reduction in penalties to an increased confidence level where he no longer fixates on whether the officials will flag him.
"He didn't trust his talent enough," said Little, who has sat next to Carroll during meetings for the last three weeks. "You're starting to see how good he is."
While Carroll has changed, so has the Vikings offense, which no longer features five-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Randy Moss.
"We miss his explosiveness," Vikings head coach Mike Tice said. "You cannot replace a Randy Moss."
Even without Moss the Packers have their work cut out for them to slow down the Vikings' passing game. Moss did not play in either of last year's regular season contests between the teams, but the Vikings still scored 31 points in each. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper threw a combined seven touchdowns in the two losses.
"I have a lot of respect for Daunte Culpepper, always have," Sherman said. "He's a great quarterback."
Despite Moss' absence, the Packers will not alter their defense from the previous years. The Packers rarely doubled him. Al Harris, the Packers' best cover cornerback, handled Moss one-on-one in man coverage with the Packers occasionally providing deep help.
"If you had the deep responsibility, you just wanted to get a little deeper. That's about it. We didn't do a whole bunch of spectacular coverages," safety Mark Roman said. "We didn't change anything."
Moss, however, provided a safety net for the Vikings offense. Even if the Packers had Moss covered, Culpepper had the confidence that Moss could use his outstanding speed, leaping ability and hands to come down with the pass.
"Randy Moss was just their outlet," Carroll said. "They're not doing things too much different."
Whether or not the absence of Moss has negatively affected the Vikings' offense, a confident, more mature Carroll has improved the Packers' defense during the last few weeks.
"He's doing some good things in practice," Sherman said. "He's making progress so hopefully that will continue."