Erin Henderson has failed to hit the ground running in moving to middle linebacker.
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their first win of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4. Quarterback Matt Cassel stepped in for an injured Christian Ponder and helped lead the team to victory in a must-win game.
Even with the positives that were present in this contest, the Vikings nearly collapsed in the last seconds of the fourth quarter, causing many fans to expect the worst after back-to-back breakdowns against the Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns.
Instead, Everson Griffen and Chad Greenway combined to force a strip-sack against the statuesque Ben Roethlisberger, essentially sealing the game in a 34-27 win.
As the Vikings prepare for the Carolina Panthers—and the hoopla surrounding the recent signing of Josh Freeman subsides—there are several specific areas that Minnesota must improve in order to realistically remain in the playoff picture.
Click ahead as we examine each for this Sunday's game, all areas that will give the Vikings a better chance to win if effectively corrected.
All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required), unless otherwise noted.
Sharrif Floyd has had a slow start to the 2013 season.
The Minnesota Vikings defense was able to frustrate the Pittsburgh Steelers in London two weeks ago, bringing a pass rush from the edges that had yet to be seen this season. Jared Allen led the team by recording 2.5 sacks, after having only one previously against the Chicago Bears, via NFL.com.
Granted, the one sack was a big effort, as Allen stripped quarterback Jay Cutler, allowing Brian Robison to return the fumble for a touchdown.
However, looking across the remainder of the Vikings defense, it has been an underwhelming experience. Kevin Williams and Sharrif Floyd have combined to record 0.5 sacks, putting additional emphasis on the outside. The Vikings currently rank 29th in the NFL in sacks with only nine total.
In order for the Vikings to contain Cam Newton and the rest of the Panthers offense, a steady dose of pressure will be needed to take some of the burden off the Vikings' banged-up secondary. The onus right now rests on the team's interior defense, who have yet to step up this season.
With Adrian Peterson in the backfield, the Vikings should be more successful on play action.
For a team that features the best running back in all of football, the Vikings have been less than impressive when executing play action.
For the first three games of the season, Christian Ponder had a completion percentage of 46.9 on 15-of-32 attempts, which ranks 32nd among all quarterbacks with at least 25 percent of the team's dropbacks, via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
In the one game that Matt Cassel has started, he has not fared much better, completing only 50 percent of play action calls on 4-of-8 attempts. That compared with a 70.6 completion percentage when no play action was called.
In order to prevent defenses from stacking the box against Adrian Peterson, the Vikings need to prepare a better game plan when mixing in play action passes. So far this season, the success rate has essentially been a coin-flip.
The Vikings linebacking corps has struggled with Erin Henderson moving to middle linebacker.
The Minnesota Vikings knew heading into the 2013 season that there would be some growing pains for Erin Henderson as he moved to the middle linebacker position in replacement of Jasper Brinkley.
Unfortunately, those pains have extended to the rest of the linebacking corps, as well. Strongside linebacker Chad Greenway admitted recently that he's been trying to do too much on defense this season, possibly to help in Henderson's adjustment, via Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press.
According to the rating system by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Greenway ranks 30th among outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense. Henderson has fared even worse when compared to all middle linebackers with at least 25 percent of a team's snaps, ranking 45th.
The Vikings hope that Henderson can get up to speed sooner rather than later, which should help relieve some pressure from Pro Bowler Greenway. Until then, the two players appear to be holding hands in mediocrity.
Kyle Rudolph hauled in just two receptions for six yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 4.
The 2013 season was supposed to be another breakout year for tight end Kyle Rudolph. Coming off a season where he had 493 yards and nine touchdowns, he even made his mark in the Pro Bowl, being named the Most Valuable Player.
Instead, Rudolph has regressed this season, partly because of poor quarterback play and the improvement of other receiving options, such as Jerome Simpson and Greg Jennings.
So far this season, Rudolph has only provided one touchdown, a disappointing number given his potential as a red-zone threat. Teammate John Carlson has continued to be non-existent, posting 14 yards and zero touchdowns. This is a player the Vikings will likely eventually need to cut ties with.
As quarterback Matt Cassel gets more comfortable with the offense, he should begin to look Rudolph's direction more often, an important weapon against the Carolina Panthers in Week 6.
However, the revolving door at quarterback may not help the tight end this year, depending on when Josh Freeman makes his first start for the Vikings.
Harrison Smith allowed the go-ahead touchdown against the Cleveland Browns.
One of the most disappointing areas for the Minnesota Vikings this season has been the team's secondary, led by safety Harrison Smith.
The second-year player has not played up to his rookie performance, specifically getting crossed up in the go-ahead touchdown to tight end Martellus Bennett against the Chicago Bears and allowing the winning touchdown by tight end Jordan Cameron of the Cleveland Browns.
In addition, the cornerback play has been spotty at best for the Vikings since the oft-injured Chris Cook went down with a groin injury. While rookie Xavier Rhodes has stepped up and played well for the team, as well as Marcus Sherels, the remaining Vikings secondary has been porous.
Specifically, second-year cornerback Josh Robinson had high expectations coming into this season, but has been the second-worst overall cornerback only behind Cortland Finnegan of the St. Louis Rams, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Vikings could use Cook on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, but if he is unable to go, the Vikings will need to continue to tape up a defensive secondary that has been one of the biggest weaknesses all season.
Matthew Stensrud is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.