Grading The Team: Three Games Deep

With so many injuries and so much room for improvement, it's a wonder the Vikings have a winning record. But they do, and maybe that's an indication of the talent that has been added over the past few years.

PASSING OFFENSE: A -- QB Daunte Culpepper was a Pro Bowl starter last season, but he's even better this season. In fact, Culpepper has never played better. His 124.8 passer rating leads the NFL. He's completing 73 percent of his passes (73 of 100) for 945 yards (315 per game), eight touchdowns and one interception. Four players have at least 10 catches, led by WR Randy Moss, who has 19 for 215 yards and five touchdowns. The offense is designed around the pass, and so far Culpepper is maintaining the team's explosiveness despite injuries to the top two tight ends, the No. 1 running back, the right tackle and the center.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The Vikings tend to abandon the run in pressure situations. Their offensive line is big, but it's not five pile drivers. They're big and athletic, which is better suited for pass blocking. The running game also was hurt in Week 1 when Jim Kleinsasser went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Vikings basically abandoned their run in the loss at Philadelphia. They bounced back against Chicago as Onterrio Smith ran for 94 yards and a 5.5-yard average. Smith is averaging 4.7 yards per carry, but hasn't scored a touchdown rushing. In fact, the Vikings' first rushing touchdown didn't come until Week 3 against the Bears when Culpepper sneaked in from the 1. Without Smith (suspended for four games) and Michael Bennett (knee surgery) for a month, it doesn't look like it will improve soon.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus -- The Vikings rank 30th in the NFL in pass defense, and are the only team in the league without an interception. The Vikings' pressure has been poor, which obviously hasn't helped the pass defense. The Vikings gave up 352 yards passing to 40-year-old Vinny Testaverde in Week 1. Bears greenhorn Rex Grossman completed 21 of 31 passes, posted a 91.9 passer rating and led Chicago to the doorstep of an upset before being carted off with a knee injury after running for a late touchdown.

RUSH DEFENSE: C -- The Vikings are 11th in the league in run defense. Of course, a cynic would say that's because teams don't need to run when passing is so much easier. The Bears tried to run the ball in Week 2 and were successful with 146 yards, a 5.2-yard average and two touchdowns. Thomas Jones ran for 110 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. The Vikings' run defense probably won't get any better anytime soon. MLB E.J. Henderson is expected to miss at least Sunday's game at Houston because of a sprained left knee. SLB Chris Claiborne might also be out because of a strained left calf.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D -- This is by far the most disappointing part of the team. The Vikings have struggled on just about every front here, including kicking off, covering it, returning kicks, punts and punting. At least the addition of 44-year-old Morten Andersen on the eve of the regular-season opener guarantees the team can at least make an extra point. Andersen also is 5 of 7 on field goal attempts. K Aaron Elling, who lost his placekicking job during the preseason, returned to the team as a kickoff specialist. He has been inconsistent, at best. His kickoffs usually are high and too short or long and too low. That makes covering them a nightmare. P Darren Bennett, 39, is struggling with inactivity, averaging only 36 yards on five punts, although two punts have been downed inside the 20. A bright spot might be Kelly Campbell on kickoff returns, assuming the 5-10, 173-pounder doesn't get snapped in half. Campbell had a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown negated by not one, but two penalties against the Bears.

COACHING: B -- The Vikings are right where they should be, 2-1 coming out of the bye. Judging by the Packers' early woes during a 1-3 start, the Vikings have to be considered a heavy favorite to finally unseat Green Bay in the division. But all is not perfect in Minneapolis. The Vikings make a lot of unforced errors, such as false starts, illegal formations and lining up offside on defense. They're averaging 8.7 penalties for 60 yards per game. It's hard to judge new defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, because the defense was a work in progress before the injuries struck. Now, it's hard to say what will happen. Offensively, the Vikings can score with anyone in the league. But the loss at Philadelphia was puzzling because offensive coordinator Scott Linehan didn't call for a pass to Randy Moss on three plays from the Eagles' 2-yard line. The Vikings' settled for a field goal against a team they knew they needed touchdowns to beat.



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