For a team once-again ranked number one in run defense and number eight in the NFL in total defense, this year’s unit has underperformed compared to the preseason expectations of a Purple People Eaters redux. The biggest red flag thus far is the 23.9 point per game allowed, ranked 10th in the conference and 20thin the league. But injuries have affected key players (EJ Henderson and Madieu Williams) the first half of the season. Let’s break down each unit’s performance, from the strength of the unit (D line) back to the weak link (secondary).
Many fans are disappointed with seeming lack of big plays from offseason signee Jared Allen, the NFL sack king over the previous two seasons. But Allen has played solid, almost quietly getting five sacks while facing more than his share of double-teams, opening up more big play potential for his linemates. Kevin Williams is on pace for (what would be) a career-high fourteen sacks. Pat Williams is mauling running backs once again. And Ray Edwards is keeping pace with the rest of the Pro Bowl line, recording twenty tackles in six games, on pace to easily eclipse his career total of forty.
The unit has played very well, but does not have the same number of big plays as last year’s high scoring D. Allen needs to continue his solid play and continue to rack up the sacks.
This solid group had big expectations coming into the year. EJ Henderson was Pro Bowl worthy last season, and seemed well on his way to a 120+ tackle season and a ticket to Hawaii. But his foot injury put his on the shelf for the remainder of the year, leaving a hole hoping to be filled by former Viking Napolean Harris, who was cut by the Chiefs despite a 116 tackle performance in 2007. Chad Greenway is constantly improving, already notching 50 tackles and two forced fumbles thus far. On the other side Ben Leber is proving once again he is a solid NFL linebacker, with 21 solo tackles out of his 25 total.
The corps is hurt by the loss of Henderson, but Harris should be an adequate replacement, and Greenway’s speed will shine as the biggest talent the unit offers the rest of the season.
For a unit with so many big names, the results through seven games have been underwhelming. Active career interception leader Darren Sharper has yet to get his hands on a ball this year, having to play with less risks with rookie Tyrell Johnson starting opposite him in Williams’ absence. Antoine Winfield has continued to live up to his hard hitting rep, with 27 solo tackles and forcing two fumbles, even mixing two sacks and an interception returned for a TD. Cedric Griffin continues to improve under Winfield’s mentorship, matching his hard hitting ways and two fumbles forced.
Playing without a projected starter thus far has had this unit playing out of its comfort zone. Sharper needs to step up big with turnovers the rest of the way.
As the Vikings make the stretch run for the playoffs and the division, they have three games left against top 10 passing teams: Houston, Green Bay, and Arizona. With the secondary finally whole, they need to step up big in these games. The last two games of the season will be strength against strength, as the Falcons and Giants bring the top two ranked run offenses to the Metrodome. Hopefully the new Purple People Eaters will swallow Turner and Jacobs whole and propel Minnesota into a long playoff run.