Bye-Week Grades: Defense

With the Minnesota Vikings on their bye week, it gives us a chance to look back at the first nine games of their season – focusing primarily on what has and hasn't been accomplished during the regular season to date. Coaches grade out players and it's time VU does it as well. Yesterday, we looked at the offense. Today, we grade out the defense and special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE -- The loss of Erasmus James was a big one because the plan was that he and Kenechi Udeze could each be double-digit sack producers. But, even with him gone, the Vikings have seen their sack totals rise as the season has worn on. Their 11 sacks aren't truly indicative of what they've accomplished, because quarterbacks like Mark Brunell had a half-dozen throwaways designed expressly to avoid being sacked. Ray Edwards has been a pleasant surprise at DE, as he and Darrion Scott have combined for 4.5 sacks. Udeze hasn't been dominant, but has been disruptive. In the middle, the Vikings have used a rotation system, but Kevin Williams and Pat Williams have each been playing at a Pro Bowl level. Kevin leads the team in sacks with three and Big Pat has been a rock in the middle of the line who has made big plays at big times. GRADE: A.

LINEBACKERS --
This was supposed to be the weakest link of the team, much less the defense, but the athletes have taken to the new Tampa-2 system and have excelled in being able to attack rather than react. Even the loss of first-round draft pick Chad Greenway hasn't taken a toll and, the way this group has been playing, its unlikely that Greenway would have seen an early starting role anyway. Napoleon Harris has finally showed flashes of what he did early in his career with the Raiders. E.J. Henderson has been explosive at times and has made life miserable for running backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Ben Leber has been the lunch-pail player of the group. He's not overly fast or strong, but he does everything well and at full-speed all the time. Far from being the load many anticipated, this group has been the most pleasant surprise of the season. GRADE: B.

SECONDARY --
At the top, this group is very strong, led by Antoine Winfield and Darren Sharper, two of the hardest tacklers in the league. Dwight Smith has done a solid job at safety and Fred Smoot, while not the greatest tackler, is solid in coverage and doesn't have teams picking on him like they did last year. A pair of rookies – cornerback Cedric Griffin and safety Greg Blue – have both made nice contributions coming off the bench and have helped provide some depth. While they can still get better, this group has performed at or above expectations. GRADE: B.

COACHING –
Mike Tomlin brought in a system that has worked in many places, but some feared the Vikings didn't have the in-house personnel to make the system work to peak efficiency immediately. They have surprised and gone beyond many people's hopes, sitting as the No. 7 defense in the league and not having allowed an opponent to score more than 20 points yet. As long as they keep doing that, the Vikings will win a lot of games, and the early success that the team has had should be credited very much to the play of the defensive unit. GRADE: B-plus.

SPECIAL TEAMS --
Ryan Longwell has done everything that was expected of him. He's made all 12 of his field goals from inside 50 yards, has thrown a touchdown and hit a pooch punt that buried the Lions and helped spark the Vikings' comeback win. Chris Kluwe has been another story. His punting average is among the lowest in the league and he hasn't been booming kicks like he did as a rookie. The return has also been a mess. The Vikings have allowed too many big returns and have lost fumbles in both the kickoff and punting game, resulting in the signing of Bethel Johnson in hopes of breathing life into their kickoff return game. This is a group that needs to improve and be more consistent if the Vikings want to make a deep playoff run. GRADE: C.

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