Updated Outlook for the Minnesota Vikings Defense in 2013-14

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Updated Outlook for the Minnesota Vikings Defense in 2013-14
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Vikings are reeling after a 34-14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3 of the preseason. At 0-3, the Vikings are among five winless teams along this stretch of exhibition games.

Before fans panic, let's remember one thing—this is still just the preseason.

That's not to completely discount the importance of these games for evaluating players and making career-changing decisions as the team approaches its 53-man roster.

But the outcome of these games is less an indicator of the team's progress than reviewing some of the battles and individual performances in the trenches.

With the month of August winding down, the Vikings defense is beginning to take shape with more certainty at some of the starting positions and players differentiating themselves from the pack.

As we head into the final preseason game against the Tennessee Titans and prepare for the season opener on Sept. 8 against the Detroit Lions, let's take an updated look at Minnesota's defense this season.  

 

Defensive Line 

The Vikings D-line took a significant hit during Sunday's preseason game, with Kevin Williams having to be helped off the field after a low block in the third quarter.

During a running play by LaMichael James, Williams was blindsided by a cut block from guard Joe Looney. After watching replays, it became clear the play violated the league's rule against peel-back blocks, even though it was not flagged on the field.

Williams was clearly not happy, via Mark Craig of the Star Tribune

"I was just upset that I'm getting cut 11 years in [the NFL] from a guy who I don’t even know," Williams said. "I figure between the pain and the fact he cut me when I wasn't looking was my reaction."

Reports on Monday from the team's website provided an update from Leslie Frazier that Williams suffered a hyperextended right knee, as well as a bone contusion and posterior capsular strain. Fortunately, there was no ligament damage.

The Vikings have not released any further timetable for his return.

Rookie Sharrif Floyd will likely now step into the spotlight, but he is also recovering from an injury. The first-round draft pick had minor surgery on his left knee and is likely to miss the remainder of the preseason, but he should be ready for the regular season, according to Frazier via the Star Tribune

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Sharrif Floyd may need to start at defensive tackle after Kevin Williams' injury.

What began the preseason as a strength at the 3-technique has suddenly become somewhat of an uncertainty. If a healthy Floyd can step in for Williams, the Vikings will be able to bridge the gap of their All-Pro tackle, but this is definitely earlier than the team was hoping for Floyd to start.

Moving over to nose tackle, Letroy Guion and Fred Evans have been battling for the starting position throughout the preseason. Both should still make the final roster, regardless of who is starting in Detroit.

Both players helped anchor the Vikings defense in 2012, which finished 11th in the NFL against the run. Guion saw most of the starting action and recorded 31 tackles, although Evans played well in backup duties and finished with 23 tackles. 

Although I still expect Guion to lead in position reps throughout the season, Evans has shown the type of play this preseason that adds excellent depth at nose tackle. He recorded a tackle for loss against the 49ers and also got into the action with a tackle against the Buffalo Bills the prior week.

At defensive end, there's no question around the starting status of Jared Allen, rather how dominant he can be this season in the final year of his contract.

The free-spirited, 10-year veteran had a career-high 22 sacks in 2011 and a respectable 12 sacks last season. He has had six straight years of double-digit sack numbers and only has missed the mark twice in his career.

Expect Allen to lead the Vikings pass rush on the right side of the defense with plenty of motivation and gas still left in the tank to push for 15 sacks this season.

At left defensive end, Brian Robison remains the team's starter on the unofficial depth chart, although Everson Griffen will play into the mix during the season. Similar to nose tackle, both players provide a strong one-two combination and will rotate snaps.

Robison recorded 37 tackles last season and 8.5 sacks. Griffen had similar numbers with 23 tackles and eight sacks. I highlighted the fourth-year player back in May as a Viking poised for a breakout campaign in 2013.

 

Linebackers

With a little more stability at the linebacker position, the Vikings are set on the strong side with tackling dynamo Chad Greenway. The eighth-year player has recorded over 100 combined tackles in every season except one, finishing with 98 in 2009.

Greenway has led the Vikings in tackles every year from 2008 and will continue that trend in 2013 (barring injury). He looked impressive in Sunday's game against the 49ers with five total tackles and added an athletic interception against backup quarterback Colt McCoy.

Erin Henderson has moved to middle linebacker with the departure of Jasper Brinkley and should be the starter in the season opener. Although he left practice last Thursday with an ankle injury, he played in third preseason game and finished with three tackles in the first-team set.

According to Frazier in early August, Henderson has been thriving at the "Mike" and a switch back to weak-side linebacker is unlikely, via the Pioneer Press.

With strong-side and middle linebacker apparently locked up, the Vikings have been evaluating multiple players on the weak side, primarily veteran Marvin Mitchell and former Green Bay Packer Desmond Bishop.

As Bishop has been recovering from injury, Mitchell has seen the majority of first-team snaps during the preseason. However, that has started to change and Bishop received snaps with the starters against San Francisco after he made his preseason debut against the Bills the previous week.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Desmond Bishop looks to be the starter at weak-side linebacker for the Vikings.

Bishop finished Sunday's preseason game with nine total tackles and two for loss, leading all defenders in both categories. For as poorly as the Vikings played, Bishop's performance stood out and lands him as the front-runner to start at the "Will."

Depth at linebacker could go in a number of different directions, with Audie Cole and Larry Dean potentially rejoining the roster. Rookie teammates Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti have also received their fair share of attention since the NFL draft, with Mauti recovering from his third ACL injury.

 

Secondary

When general manager Rick Spielman selected Xavier Rhodes in the first round of this year's draft, he filled a glaring hole left by All-Pro cornerback Antoine Winfield. The 15-year veteran had played nine years in Minnesota, providing the rare strength in an otherwise porous secondary.

Although Rhodes will experience an adjustment period moving to the pass-friendly NFL—where receivers are handled with white gloves in the eyes of officials—he provides a physical presence at 6'1" and 210 pounds to contend with the likes of Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall in the NFC North.

Rhodes will complement fourth-year player Chris Cook, who has a similar stature at 6'2" and 212 pounds. However, Cook has had trouble keeping that long frame on the playing field, only playing in 10 games last season and six in each of the previous two seasons.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Cook makes a tackle against the Houston Texans in preseason.

Cook made an excellent play in open space in his only tackle against the 49ers, taking a sharp angle to halt the progress of wide receiver Chad Hall in the first quarter. However, he left with a groin injury later in the quarter, keeping with his oft-injured image.

Considering these injury concerns with Cook, depth at cornerback will be especially important again in 2013. Josh Robinson looks set to have a breakout year, combining top-class speed with a year under his belt against some of the league's top receivers.

Rhodes and Robinson have been competing for the second starting cornerback spot behind Cook in the Vikings base defense, but if Sunday's game is a sign of things to come, the two young cornerbacks may line up across from each other in several games this season.

A.J. Jefferson returns to Minnesota after signing his restricted free-agent tender this past offseason. Considering the weakness at secondary for the Vikings, it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Jefferson doesn't make the team.

He didn't play exceptionally well for the Vikings in his lone season in Minnesota after being traded by the Arizona Cardinals, but the front office will give the former Fresno State standout another year to prove himself.

The wild card in this year's preseason has been Bobby Felder, who has performed well in limited opportunities, competing with Minnesota native and last season's punt returner Marcus Sherels. While both only provide depth at cornerback, the existence of one on this year's 53-man roster may result in a late cut to the other.

Finally, the safety blanket for the Vikings defense will be led by second-year star Harrison Smith. He recorded 97 combined tackles in his rookie campaign and posted three interceptions with two returned for touchdowns.

With the departure of Winfield, Smith steps up as the clear captain of the team's secondary.

The strong safety position will be fought for by Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond, neither player quite yet distinguishing himself from the other. Sanford appears to be the likely starter, hoping to improve his leadership and better partner his free-safety companion.

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Defensive coordinator Alan Williams praised Sanford when contrasting his reputation as a smack-talker, via Andrew Kramer of 1500ESPN.com:

"Jamarca is just taking over from what he did for us last year and he is leading us this year," Williams said. "He likes to talk now. The one thing about Jamarca is he backs it up on the football field."

If Sanford can step up at safety and the Vikings can stay healthy at cornerback, they should improve upon a 2012 performance where the team finished 24th against the pass.

Sadly, the performance against the 49ers in the preseason and Cook's early exit does not provide a lot of confidence heading into the season. Other players will need to step up, primarily Minnesota's most inexperienced players.

 

*Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.

 

Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for the Minnesota Vikings. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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