Grading The Start: 5-0

It's hard to find too much fault with Mike Tice's 5-0 start, but the Vikings do manage to get one "average" grade from their pre-bye performances this year.

PASSING OFFENSE: A — The Vikings have a 113.7 quarterback rating, 12 touchdowns, two interceptions and the NFL's top-ranked offense despite having to use their backup quarterback for 2-1/2 games. Starter Daunte Culpepper had a 108.0 rating, five touchdowns, no interceptions and a 60.9 completion percentage before fracturing three transverse process bones and partially cracking a fourth in his lower back against Detroit. Gus Frerotte stepped in and posted a 113.7 rating, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Randy Moss already has six touchdown receptions, while five other players have at least one touchdown catch. The only negative is the Vikings rank 24th in the league in sacks per play. They've allowed 12 sacks.

RUSHING OFFENSE: A — The Vikings are fourth in the NFL in rushing despite losing Pro Bowl running back Michael Bennett (foot) for at least the first seven games. Doug Chapman was supposed to take over Bennett's role, but injuries in training camp rendered him basically useless. In stepped career third-down specialist Moe Williams, who has exceeded everyone's expectations. Williams averages 5 yards per carry with three touchdowns. Rookie fourth-round draft pick Onterrio Smith started slow but has proven capable of sharing the load until Bennett returns. Smith is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Receiver Kelly Campbell has had a reverse in every game and is averaging 11.8 yards per carry. The Vikings average 4.6 yards per carry.

PASS DEFENSE: B — The Vikings lead the league in interceptions with 13. Free safety Brian Russell, a former practice-squad player, has an interception in each of the team's five victories. He's one game from tying Hall of Famer Paul Krause's team record for consecutive games with an interception, and three from matching the NFL record. The safeties have nine of the interceptions, a result of the Vikings' front line collapsing the pocket, causing passes to sail high and off the mark. The Vikings, however, are sometimes too aggressive in the secondary. They've been burned by play-action passes, especially in their last game, a 39-26 victory over Atlanta.

RUN DEFENSE: B — The Vikings rank 10th in the NFL against the run. Rookie first-round draft pick Kevin Williams has added much-needed size up front at left end. Linebacker Chris Claiborne, who was signed as a free agent from Detroit during the offseason, has been a playmaker and solid tackler the team lacked at that position last season. Opponents have broken some long gains, mostly because of missed tackles by the safeties. Opponents are averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C — While this is an average grade, it's quite a jump from last season's F-minus. New special teams coach Rusty Tillman has made the Vikings respectable. Kickoff coverage has been the team's greatest weakness, but has gotten steadily better the past two games. Punt returns by rookie Keenan Howry (7.8) and kickoff returns by John Avery (21.7) have tailed off to average in recent games. Rookie punter Eddie Johnson and first-year kicker Aaron Elling have been steady, but unspectacular.

COACHING: A — Everything coach Mike Tice and his staff have done has worked out tremendously for the Vikings. Signing Frerotte instead of Neil O'Donnell. Turning the defense over to George O'Leary. Signing Denard Walker, Ken Irvin and Chris Claiborne. All seven draft picks made the final roster and are contributing. Moving Chris Liwienski from right tackle to left guard and signing Mike Rosenthal to play right tackle. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has been able to use the line's strength to recreate the offensive game plan each week.




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