PASSING OFFENSE: C - This should come with separate grades for Donovan McNabb's six starts and Christian Ponder's two starts. Under McNabb, the offense was usually out of rhythm, especially on third down, as McNabb bounced passes, overthrew receivers and looked generally washed up. Under Ponder, the offense has come to life, especially on third down. Ponder's mobility and speed make him a threat to run. And his poise and fearlessness in throwing the ball down the field has forced defenses to back off the line of scrimmage, which has opened up more running lanes for Adrian Peterson. The offense under McNabb was a D and falling. Under Ponder, it's at least a C and appears to be rising.
RUSHING OFFENSE: B - Adrian Peterson is having one of his finest seasons, which is saying a lot for the league's best running back. There have been times in which teams have neutralized him, but that mainly was because McNabb's struggles made it easy to put eight and nine defenders in the box. With Ponder reviving the passing game and being a threat to run himself, defenses now face having to pay a price for stacking the line of scrimmage. Even with a below-average offensive line, the Vikings' running game is solid. Besides Peterson, the Vikings also have used receiver Percy Harvin consistently as a runner. The solidly-built Harvin is both a threat on end-around runs as well as between the tackles. The Vikings also are just now starting to develop backup Toby Gerhart, a big back with power, as a complement to Peterson.
PASS DEFENSE: D - The Vikings are holding on for dear life with a secondary that's depleted. If it weren't for a MVP-type season from NFL sacks leader Jared Allen, the Vikings could be facing a complete meltdown situation against the pass. Starting left cornerback Antoine Winfield has missed the past four games because of a neck injury. His replacement, promising second-year pro Chris Cook, is facing a felony domestic assault charge and might not play the rest of the season. The other starting corner, Cedric Griffin, has had a poor season as he fights to return to form after tearing the ACLs in both knees the past two seasons. Against the Panthers, the Vikings had little choice but to have Asher Allen, a little-used dime back a month ago, shadow Steve Smith. Safeties Husain Abdullah and the combination of Jamarca Sanford and Tyrell Johnson have given up too many big plays.
RUSH DEFENSE: C-minus - The stats say the Vikings have a top-10 run defense, but that's misleading. This is a shell of the great run defenses the team has had in recent seasons. When the team has needed to really clamp down on the run, it has failed time and again. Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount started it by gashing the Vikings' defense in the second half the day Tampa Bay overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit to win in Week 2. Needing a stop to get the ball back late in a 33-27 loss to Green Bay in Week 7, the Vikings were humiliated on the ground when James Starks ran six straight times for 55 yards and three first downs.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-minus - Percy Harvin returned the season's opening kickoff 103 yards for a touchdown. But the kick coverage unit also gave up a touchdown to Chicago's Devin Hester that erased any chance the Vikings had of making a game of it in Chicago. Marcus Sherels has been mostly a pleasant surprise as a punt returner, but he also continues to make poor decisions fielding punts inside his own 10. Kicker Ryan Longwell remains a reliable kicker, but there are some doubts about him that haven't existed in recent seasons. He's badly hooked attempts wide left on three attempts the past four weeks. And they were kicks of 31, 38 and 43 yards. Those are lengths that he's normally automatic on.
COACHING: C-minus - Leslie Frazier and his staff deserve a bit of a break. The 4½-month lockout couldn't have come at a worse time for the Vikings. While the other teams in their division had established coaching staffs, quarterbacks and offensive and defensive systems, the Vikings sat idle with a head coach going into his first full season, a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive system. The struggling was expected, but where Frazier erred most was in estimating how much football McNabb still had left in him. McNabb looked as bad or worse than he did in Washington last season. By the time Frazier finally turned to Ponder as his starter, the team was 1-5 and five games behind the Packers in the NFC North.
Vikings' halfway-home report card
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