The Minnesota Vikings have shaken off the specter of their 3-13 season of 2011. A season that started out bad, losing the first three games by giving away double-digit, halftime leads. Those first three games culminated with an overtime loss to the Lions, after going into the half with a 20-0 lead.
Those three games seemed to set the tone for the remainder of the season.
The defense finished last in the NFL, yielding 34 touchdowns passes. They also set a mark in futility going nine games without an interception. The season ended with their best player, running back Adrian Peterson, facing major reconstructive knee surgery following an injury in Week 16.
It sure looked like Leslie Frazier's tenure as head coach was on life support.
This season Frazier has turned things around. Going with a youth movement, the Vikings roster is the youngest since 1967, with the average age of 25.8 years old. They are playing more disciplined, currently with the ninth-fewest penalties in the NFL. This is an improvement over last season when they finished 22nd in the NFL in penalties.
The turnaround from last season has come about with four new starters on offense—three of them on the offensive line, and three new starters on defense.
Here's a countdown of the top five players on the Vikings' roster as we approach midseason.
There was no doubt that when the Vikings traded up in the draft to select safety Harrison Smith in the first round, that he would be starting.
Sure head coach Leslie Frazier played some mind games by opening training camp with Smith third on the depth chart, but everyone knew when the opening day came Smith would be out there. In a report from StarTribune.com as camp opened Frazier was quoted:
“We want him to compete and win that job,” Frazier said. “We’ll see how it plays out over the next few weeks.”
It didn't take long before Smith was working with the first defense. When the season opened he was atop the depth chart.
According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Smith leads the Vikings with eight passes defensed through seven games. He is a big hitter, bringing a toughness to the defensive backfield that appears to be rubbing off on the rest of the team.
A great example came in the Week 4 against the Lions in Detroit. With two minutes left in the first half, and the Vikings leading 13-3, Matthew Stafford had the Lions driving deep into Vikings' territory. Facing a 2nd-and-goal from the 13-yard line. Stafford hit Calvin Johnson on a post pattern in the end zone. There was Smith, putting a hit on Johnson that separated him from the ball. The Lions settled for a field goal.
Against the Cardinals in Week 7 his 31-yard interception return for a touchdown put the Vikings up 21-7 early in the third quarter. It provided the final margin of victory in the Vikings 21-14 win.
It was the first defensive touchdown for Minnesota since Week 16 of the 2010 season.
Since joining the Vikings in 2008, defensive end Jared Allen has led the Vikings in sacks every season. His dominance reached a peak in last season when, for the second time in his career, he led the NFL in sacks.
While his efforts in 2011 fell one-half sack shy of matching the single-season record held by Michael Strahan, it was enough to set a new Vikings single-season mark. He displaced Chris Doleman who recorded 21 sacks in 1989.
And all this cost the Vikings was a their first-round draft pick in 2008 and a couple of third-round picks. Not bad for a player that ranks third all-time in sacks for the Vikings—at least for those players that sacks have been recorded.
In his fifth season with the Vikings, he has been a one-man wrecking crew. He has 71 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, eight fumble recoveries, and four interceptions—returning one of each for a touchdown.
This season he is once again leading Minnesota in sacks with seven.
Chad Greenway, the Vikings' first-round draft pick in 2006 from Iowa, missed his entire rookie season after suffering a torn ACL in the preseason opener.
He made his NFL debut on September 9th, 2007, and has started every game since.
In 2007 he finished third on the team in tackles with 78. The following season he led the Vikings defense with 84 tackles, and has continued lead the team every year.
His consistency has also been his bane. He finally got some notice last season when he was named as an alternate to the NFC roster in the Pro Bowl.
To no surprise he once again leading the Vikings' defense in tackles with 43 solo and 24 assists through seven games.
He's appears to be playing much better this season. That may be perhaps because he is playing along side a couple of young linebackers—second year starter, Erin Henderson on the weak side, and first year starter, Jasper Brinkley in the middle.
Adrian Peterson is not your regular human—by all indications he must be superhuman.
The NFL's best running back since joining the league in 2007, Peterson defied the odds when he opened the season as the Vikings starter against Jacksonville—a mere nine months from having reconstructive surgery on his left knee.
Through seven games this season he is averaging 93.1 yards per game. Statistically, it's his best season since 2008, when he led the NFL in rushing. Not quite on the same pace as that season, he's on a pace to finish with close to 1,500 yards.
He is currently fourth in the NFL with 652 yards.
Twice this season the Vikings offense has had more rushing yards than passing yards—and in both cases the Vikings ended up winning the game.
With a 153 yards against the Cardinals on Sunday, Peterson had his best game of the season, and the most yards since rushing for 175 yards in Week 7 against the Packers in 2011.
In typical Peterson fashion, he believes he can still do better, according to a tweet from Tom Pelissero.
Peterson said he's "light years" stronger/more explosive than Week 1. "There's still a little missing. You guys probably think I'm crazy."— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) October 21, 2012
Was there any doubt who would top this list?
Since being drafted in the first round in 2009, Harvin has been a defensive coordinator's nightmare. He has lined up as the split end, in the slot, along side the quarterback in the shotgun, and as the tailback on running plays.
Every season he has scored at least one touchdown on a kickoff return. In his rookie season, when he was named the NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year he had two of them. With a total of five kickoff returns for a touchdown, he is only three behind the current NFL record holder, Josh Cribbs who has eight.
The Vikings would not be 5-2 without Harvin.
In the Vikings' only road win on the season, Harvin set the tone on the opening kickoff with a 105-yard return for a touchdown against the Lions in Week 4. In the Week 7 win over the Cardinals, quarterback Christian Ponder only completed eight passes in the game, but four of them were caught by Harvin, one for a touchdown.
He leads the Vikings with a total of four touchdowns, and is on pace for 1,300 yards receiving—a career high for the Vikings most explosive player in his fourth NFL season.