Vikings Team Analysis: Defense, Special Teams

The Vikings accomplished the rare feat of having the bottom-ranked passing defense and top-ranked running defense in back to back seasons. We examine the strengths and weaknesses of the different personnel on defense, along with a look at their special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Kenechi Udeze, DT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Ray Edwards. Backups — DT Fred Evans, DE Otis Grigsby, DT Spencer Johnson, DE Jayme Mitchell, DE Brian Robison. Injured reserve — DE Erasmus James, DE Darrion Scott.

The Vikings' tackle tandem of Kevin and Pat Williams earned a second consecutive Pro Bowl berth by once again anchoring a run defense that finished atop the NFL (74.1 yards per game). But while that combination continued to make running the ball difficult, opponents continued to have far too much success through the air against this defense. In 2006, the Vikings finished tied for last in the NFL in pass defense. This season they were all alone at the bottom of the league, giving up an average of 264.1 yards per game. Part of the reason was the lack of a consistent pass rush from the line. The Vikings finished eighth in the NFL with 38 sacks but did not have a player with more than five sacks. Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber and Udeze each reached that total. It did not help matters that Edwards was suspended for the final four games for violating the NFL's policy on anabolic steroids and related substances. Udeze certainly showed improvement; he remarkably had no sacks in 2006 despite starting much of the season in place of the injured James at right end. Udeze, however, is more suited to play base end and looked more comfortable this season. What the Vikings really need is a dominant pass rusher off the right side. It's unclear if Edwards could develop into that caliber of player and James no longer can be counted on to serve in that role. The 18th pick of the 2005 draft, James has had the past two seasons ended by knee injuries. He's expected to be ready for training camp, but any contribution at this point will have to be considered a bonus. Robison, a fourth-round pick in the 2007 draft, proved effective in situational roles and had 4.5 sacks. His workload increased substantially after Edwards' suspension and Robison appeared to wear down late in the year. Mitchell and Evans are young players the Vikings are hoping to develop for the future. Grigsby was signed off the Carolina practice squad late in the season to add depth. Johnson and Scott will be free agents in March and could find work elsewhere. Johnson had three sacks as Kevin Williams' backup but might want to try to get himself into a situation where he could start. Scott spent most on the year on injured reserve because of a foot injury.

LINEBACKERS: Starters — WLB Chad Greenway, MLB E.J. Henderson, SLB Ben Leber. Backups — Vinny Ciurciu, Heath Farwell, David Herron, Dontarrious Thomas. Injured reserve — Rufus Alexander.

This unit proved to be a strength for a second consecutive season. Part of the reason was because Henderson did not miss a beat in moving from the weak side to the middle in order to replace Napoleon Harris, who signed with Kansas City as a free agent last offseason. Henderson had a team-leading and career-high 155 tackles and added 4.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss, two fumble recoveries and one forced fumble. Greenway, who missed the 2006 season because of a knee injury after being the Vikings' first-round pick, showed improvement throughout the year and was second on the team to Henderson with 130 tackles. He also had four fumble recoveries. Leber was the only linebacker from the 2006 corps who returned to play the same position and he continued to provide a steadying presence and tied for the team lead with five sacks. Henderson and Leber's ability to blitz was one reason the Vikings had as many as 38 sacks. Thomas served as the primary backup at all three linebacker spots but saw limited action because none of the top three missed a game. Ciurciu and Farwell, along with Thomas, played significant roles on special teams. Herron spent most of the season on the practice squad. Alexander missed the year because of a knee injury suffered in the first preseason game.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, RCB Cedric Griffin, SS Darren Sharper, FS Dwight Smith. Backups — CB Charles Gordon, CB Marcus McCauley, CB Ronyell Whitaker, S Mike Doss, S Eric Frampton, S Tank Williams.

The Vikings finished at the bottom of the NFL in pass defense for the second consecutive year, although all the blame can't be put on this group. Winfield missed a career-high six games because of injury, forcing McCauley into the starting role at left corner. Winfield's injury problems started halfway through the season just after McCauley had been demoted from a role in the nickel in favor of Gordon. While McCauley had played the corner in the nickel and Winfield shifted inside, Gordon was able to play against the slot receiver in these situations. Griffin started every game in his second NFL season and appeared to make strides throughout. Sharper and Smith tied for the team lead with four interceptions but it wouldn't be surprising if Smith does not return next year. Smith was cited for misdemeanor possession of marijuana late in the season and the Vikings could decide to part company with the outspoken veteran. Doss and Williams will be free agents and the Vikings might look to bring back one of the two veterans. Whitaker, who also will be a free agent, and Frampton played almost exclusively on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KOR Aundrae Allison, PR Mewelde Moore.

Longwell, in his 11th season, made 20 of 24 field goals with three of his misses coming from 50 or more yards. After an offseason of workouts devoted to improving his distance on kickoffs, he also added nearly 4 yards to his average, jumping from an NFL-worst 59.1 yards in 2006 to 62.8 in 2007. That placed him 19th overall in the league. Longwell also tripled his total of touchbacks from three to nine. Punter Chris Kluwe had a career-high 44.7-yard gross average and 37.0 net average to rank eighth in the league and finished third in the NFL with 34 punts inside the 20. Part of the reason Kluwe showed improvement was because he has become more comfortable with the directional punting the coaching staff started working on with him last season. Allison, a fifth-round draft choice, received more and more time on kick returns as the year progressed and ranked No. 1 in the NFC and No. 3 in the NFL with a team record 28.7 yards per return. Moore replaced Bobby Wade as the primary punt-return man halfway through the season and averaged 10 yards.

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