Bye-week grades: Defense and special teams

The Vikings have improved their defense, especially defending the pass, but the special teams have been the bane of this team. Putting the two on the same report card has created wildly divergent grades.

Yesterday, we graded out the Vikings offense and coaching at the bye-week mark. Today we examine the defense and special teams. If the Vikings are going to make the playoffs this year, the defense will have to continue at or above its current pace and the special teams will have to demonstrate some dramatic improvements.

DEFENSIVE LINE – This unit is as strong as it has been in years. Jared Allen has changed the way offenses look to attack the Vikings and the results have been apparent. The Vikings haven't had a player with double-digit sacks since Kevin Williams in 2004, but both Williams (six sacks) and Allen (five) are on pace to meet that threshold. That is something considering nobody had more than five sacks all season last year and, in 2006, the team leader had 5.5 sacks. The run defense continues to be stellar, with opponents averaging less than three yards per attempt. Pat Williams is again playing at a Pro Bowl level and it could be argued that the Vikings could have three Pro Bowl players on the defensive front this year. Ray Edwards has battled injuries and depth at end is a concern, but the line has done everything that has been asked of it in both stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback in the passing game. GRADE: A-minus.

LINEBACKER – This position has taken a serious hit with the loss of E.J. Henderson for the season and special-teamer/prime backup Heath Farwell in the preseason. The Vikings have been forced to start David Herron and Vinny Ciurciu at the MLB position with less-than-ideal results. The additions of Dontarrious Thomas and Napoleon Harris speak to the perceived deficiency at the position. Ben Leber and Chad Greenway have both done consistently solid jobs at their positions. They're not making huge, game-changing plays, but they are doing what is required of them and at a pretty high level. The loss of Henderson may be as big as any loss on the team by injury because he meant so much in the middle of the defense. This unit won't be as good post-E.J. as it was before the injury, but it is hoped that numbers will overcome the loss of its one centerpiece player. GRADE: C-plus.

SECONDARY – The Vikings addressed a need at safety opposite Darren Sharper in both free agency and the draft – making Madieu Williams one of its first free-agent signings and using its first pick in the 2008 draft on Tyrell Johnson. With the preseason neck injury to Williams, it seems extremely fortunate that the Vikings addressed that position with its "best athlete available" draft approach. With Williams expected to return following the bye week, this position will only get stronger, as the Williams joins Sharper, and Johnson continues to gain valuable experience. For my money, Antoine Winfield is likely the first-half MVP of the Vikings. He's always been known as being a strong run-support corner and that hasn't changed. But his ability as a corner blitzer and cover man has been on display much more this season than in previous years. Several Vikings opponents have opted simply not to throw Winfield's way – the ultimate sign of respect to a cornerback. Cedric Griffin has been targeted and, for the most part, has held up. Depth has been an issue, with Chuck Gordon moving into the role of nickel corner and making plays when called upon. The lost man in this group has been Marcus McCauley. Pressed into duty last year as a spot starter due to injury, McCauley has been mired at the bottom of the depth chart. He has the skills needed to be a solid NFL corner, but has very little in the way of return at this point of the season. For a defense that was at the bottom of the league in pass defense each of the last two years, the fact the Vikings are middle of the pack is an enormous upgrade and much of the credit belongs to Winfield, who has all but taken away a third of the field to opposing offenses in many games this season. GRADE: B.

SPECIAL TEAMS – It's unfortunate that the season Ryan Longwell is having has been lost in the other special teams malaise of 2008. He leads the NFL in scoring with 62 points and has made 16 of 19 field goal attempts. When the offense has struggled or gone into a shell due to conservative play-calling, Longwell has been able to get needed points on the board almost every time he has been called on. Aside from that, this is the pig with lipstick that politicos talk about. Chris Kluwe almost got cut after a dismal performance against the Saints and two touchdowns against the Bears simply pointed out even more how badly the Vikings have played on special teams. There are teams that are good at special teams every year because they invest a roster spot in a return specialist and keep an additional linebacker or safety rather than a fourth offensive tackle to assure that their coverage teams will be strong. The Vikings are on pace to have their worst season in punt coverage ever and, entering the bye, the Vikings were almost four times the league average for return yards allowed and a huge distance away from the 31st rated coverage team from another club. Kickoff returns have been no picnic either. If the Vikings don't make the playoffs, finger-pointing can start here, because to date the special teams have been anything but special. GRADE: F.

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