Grading the team: Defense and special teams

It isn't straight A's for the Vikings defense and special teams. With a 7-1 record, much is going well, but there are still areas for improvement. We hand out our midseason grades for defense and special teams.

Editor's Note: As the Vikings enjoy a well-deserved bye week sitting atop the NFC North with a 7-1 record, we thought it was a good time to hand out mid-season report cards. In the first of the two-part series Saturday, we graded the offense and coaching. Today we grade the defense and special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE – Jared Allen has turned out to be one of the greatest trades in Vikings history. Despite concerns over giving up a first-round and two third-round picks to land the defensive end, his 25 sacks in 24 games as a Viking speaks volumes. He is a candidate for Defensive Most Valuable Player in the league since he is on pace for 21 sacks and has consistently made big plays when the defense has needed them. Kevin Williams remains at the top of his game and, despite turning 37, Pat Williams is still a load in the middle that takes away inside running lanes. Ray Edwards has been erratic, but has improved his pass-rushing from a year ago. Jimmy Kennedy and Brian Robison have made their way on to the field consistently to give the Vikings some much-needed depth. The run defense hasn't been as stifling as it has in years past, but a game-by-game breakdown shows that the team is still consistently holding down featured backs, it has been wide receivers on reverses and quarterbacks on scrambles that have inflated the rushing numbers allowed. If the Vikings are going to continue to dominate the NFC, these guys will have to be a big part of it. GRADE: A-minus.

LINEBACKER – The starting trio of Chad Greenway, E.J. Henderson and Ben Leber have all done everything that has been expected of them. Greenway is an emerging star who has become much more of a playmaker over the last year-plus. Henderson, whose injury crippled the defense last year, has come back and is starting to play with the same pre-injury ferocity that had people so excited about him heading into last season. Leber doesn't get the same amount of attention, but simply does his job well. Backups Heath Farwell, Jasper Brinkley and Kenny Onatolu have done most of their work on special teams, but have each been solid contributors when called upon. An injury to one of the starters would hurt the defense significantly, but, as long as they're healthy, they are an aggressive unit that is able to get the job done. GRADE: B.

SECONDARY – There were concerns what would happen if Antoine Winfield or Cedric Griffin got injured, and Vikings fans found out the hard way since Winfield has been down. Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers have all taken advantage by picking on the players that have replaced Winfield, and his stellar run support and sure tackling has been sorely missed. Griffin has taken on more of a leadership role, speaking more on behalf of the defense to the media and making more plays on the field. Once picked on by opposing offensive coordinators, he has made enough plays that teams don't go his way nearly as much as they did the last couple of years. Benny Sapp and Karl Paymah have had their moments – both good and bad – and don't bring the same consistency to the table that the coaching staff would like. Especially against Baltimore, they were exposed as being beatable over the top. The safety position has been a little nondescript. While Darren Sharper was known for making the spectacular play – turning interceptions into defensive touchdowns, Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson haven't been forces out on the field, but haven't been toasted too often over the top. They're doing their jobs, just not executing the kind of difference-making plays expected from safeties in a Cover-2 defense. GRADE: C-plus.

SPECIAL TEAMS – This was the clear weak link of the team last year, surrendering points at a record-setting pace and allowing teams to get short fields with long returns on both kickoffs and punts. That hasn't been the case this year. While they still can frustrate by allowing some long returns, by and large, the coverage teams have been about as good as any in the league. The big difference has been supplied by Harvin. As a team, the Vikings have never placed much value on returners. Over the last 10 years, the team has had a different player lead them in punt returns every year and their kickoff return guys have typically been backup wide receivers, running backs or defensive backs that seemingly were put back there simply because they needed somebody. Harvin has changed that dramatically. He's already broken two returns for touchdowns and had a couple of others that were a shoestring tackle away from going the distance. His 30-yard return average is the second-best in the NFL and teams are now forcing themselves to kick short and allow the Vikings to start on the 35- to 40-yard line just so Harvin won't break one for six points. It's the Devin Hester rule of kick coverage and, even if Harvin doesn't break another TD, his ability to do so will alter how teams prepare for the Vikings. Darius Reynaud was leading the league in punt returns before being injured and Jaymar Johnson has done a solid job in his stead. Ryan Longwell remains rock solid and Chris Kluwe, after a rough start, is booming punts again instead of kicking short, directional punts out of bounds. For a group that was as awkward as a missing front tooth last year, it has become a strength of the team and one of the reasons they're rolling at 7-1. GRADE: A-minus.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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