Vikings unit-by-unit analysis, defense

The Vikings improved their pass defense with help from acquisitions like Jared Allen and Madieu Williams. Injuries caused some shuffling in the back seven and contracts could cause some changes in the secondary over the next year or two. We also take a look at the special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters — LE Ray Edwards, DT Kevin Williams, NT Pat Williams, RE Jared Allen. Backups — DT Fred Evans, DT Jimmy Kennedy, DT Ellis Wyms, DT Letroy Guion, DE Brian Robison, DE Otis Grigsby. Injured reserve — DT Kenderick Allen, DE Jayme Mitchell. Reserve/non-football illness — DE Kenechi Udeze.

Just as the Vikings made a big investment on Bernard Berrian in an attempt to improve their receiver corps, they also spent heavily to obtain a Pro Bowl rush end in Allen. He did not disappoint. Acquired from the Kansas City Chiefs last April for a first- and two third-round draft picks and then signed to a six-year, $74.5 million contract, Allen led the Vikings with 14.5 sacks and played through knee and shoulder injuries that would have sidelined most. Allen's production and the fact other teams often had to double-team him helped Kevin Williams get 8.5 sacks. That was his highest total since he had 11.5 in 2004. The Vikings finished with 45 sacks to rank fourth in the NFL. Getting consistent pressure on the quarterback helped Minnesota move from the bottom of the league in pass defense in 2007 to 18th this season. The Vikings also finished first against the run for the third consecutive season. This was in large part because of the continued dominance of Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams. The Vikings thought they might lose both for four games at one point after the NFL suspended them for violating its anti-doping policy but the pair sued to stop the suspensions and their case remains in court. Pat Williams, however, was lost late in the year because of a broken shoulder. The only non Pro Bowl starter on the line was left end Edwards, and he finished with five sacks to place fourth on the team. The key backups were Evans, who frequently spelled Pat Williams on passing downs, and Robison, who played both end spots and also moved inside in some passing situations. Kennedy and Wyms are veteran journeymen and it remains to be seen if they will return. Kennedy was signed as insurance late in the year when it appeared the Williamses might have to sit out. Both Kennedy and Wyms will be free agents. Guion, meanwhile, was more of a project in his rookie year.

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

This group suffered a major blow in the fourth game of the season when defensive captain E.J. Henderson suffered multiple dislocated toes on his left foot and had to undergo season-ending surgery. The Vikings quickly signed Harris, who had been released by Kansas City, because he was familiar with Minnesota's system after spending 2006 with the team. Nonetheless, changes had to be made. While Henderson had stayed on the field for all downs, Harris came out in the nickel package, leaving Greenway and Leber as the linebackers. In these instances, Leber had to assume the middle linebacker spot. Leber also became the linebacker who relayed the defenses into the huddle after getting them communicated into his helmet. Still, this unit played well. Greenway was third on the team with six sacks and Leber led the club with four fumble recoveries and tied for the team lead with two interceptions. With Henderson expected to make a full recovery, Harris could be allowed to walk as a free agent this offseason. Herron also saw some playing time after Henderson got hurt, but he also was slowed by injuries. Ciurciu and Erin Henderson were viewed as special-teams players and Thomas saw little time after being re-signed following E.J. Henderson's injury. In addition to Henderson, another key return could be that of Farwell. Farwell was lost to a season-ending knee injury in the exhibition opener. Set to become an unrestricted free agent, Farwell is a standout on special teams and has upside as a backup linebacker.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters — LCB Antoine Winfield, SS Darren Sharper, FS Madieu Williams, RCB Cedric Griffin. Backups — CB Marcus McCauley, CB Benny Sapp, S Tyrell Johnson, S Husain Abdullah, S Eric Frampton. Injured reserve — CB Charles Gordon, S Michael Boulware.

Williams was another of the Vikings' big free-agent pickups last offseason, but he missed the first seven games because of a neck injury suffered early in training camp. This enabled second-round rookie Tyrell Johnson to get plenty of experience as a starter. That should pay in 2009 given that it appears unlikely Sharper will return. The veteran will be an unrestricted free agent and with the Vikings likely to make a significant addition at quarterback, money could be saved by going from Sharper to Johnson. Winfield, elected to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his 10-year career, will be entering the final season of his contract in 2009. He only had two interceptions this season but nonetheless played well and continued to be an incredibly hard-hitting corner given that he is only 5-9, 180 pounds. Griffin, meanwhile, showed improvement as the season progressed. The third-year player was picked on early by opponents but seemed to gain confidence. To his credit, he did not give up many big plays. Williams didn't do much to impress from a statistical standpoint but it was hard to ignore the fact the Vikings were 7-2 after he returned. Sapp, who will be a free agent, made a contribution in his first season with the Vikings by assuming the nickel back role after Gordon was lost for the season because of a dislocated ankle. McCauley, though, all but disappeared after seeing extensive duty in his rookie season in 2007. His future with the team appears uncertain at best and it would not be surprising if the Vikings look to add depth at cornerback this offseason. Abdullah and Frampton were used on special teams.

SPECIAL TEAMS: K Ryan Longwell, P Chris Kluwe, LS Cullen Loeffler, KOR Maurice Hicks, PR Bernard Berrian.

Longwell continued to be Mr. Clutch throughout the season, kicking three game-winning field goals. He now has six since joining the Vikings in 2006. The perception of Kluwe's season might not be all that good given that four of the NFL-record seven touchdowns the Vikings surrendered on special teams came on punts. But Kluwe actually was outstanding from a statistical perspective in gross punting, finishing the season with a 47.6 gross average and a 35.0 net average. It's the punt coverage unit that the Vikings need more production from next season. Loeffler remains a top-notch long snapper and rarely makes a mistake. The Vikings will be looking for far better from their return men. Berrian provided a spark on punt returns, averaging 16.3 yards and taking one 82 yards for a touchdown on seven attempts, but having your No. 1 receiver return punts isn't ideal. Reynaud (25.1 yards on eight returns) was solid on kickoff returns before he suffered a foot injury. Hicks, signed as a free agent from San Francisco, averaged 23.8 yards on 29 returns and did little to suggest he was a good investment for that role.



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