The quarterback position received so much of the scrutiny this season for the Minnesota Vikings. The defense as a whole is the reason Minnesota was 5-10-1 and why coach Leslie Frazier, coming from a defensive background, was fired last week.
A change at quarterback was easy and could be done in one week for the Vikings. Changing an entire defense wasn’t as simple. Minnesota suffered breakdowns on every level of the defense, beginning with a pass rush that didn’t have as much success as in recent seasons to an overmatched secondary that again dealt with many injuries.
The Vikings allowed a league-high 30 points per game, nearly setting a franchise record for most points allowed in the process. Minnesota allowed the second-most yards in the NFL, giving up 397.6 yards per game. The Vikings allowed the second-most passing yards (287.2 yards per game) and were 16th in run-defense, giving up 110.4 yards per game.
After taking the ball away successfully early in the season, Minnesota finished tied for the fifth-fewest takeaways with 20, coming on 12 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries.
Here’s how the defense graded out in each spot this season:
Defensive line: C-minus
The changes this offseason will begin along the line, and for good reason. The Vikings’ defensive line has been aging and showed its age in a relative down year for the group. Two longtime defensive leaders, defensive end Jared Allen and defensive tackle Kevin Williams, may have played their final games with Minnesota.
Allen led the team in sacks for the sixth straight season and still reached double-figures after a late flurry. Allen had 11.5 sacks after gaining at least a half-sack in the final five games. He had 6.5 sacks in the final five games. Allen just wasn’t the same disruptive force he’d been in the past and was healthy after having offseason surgery. He’s still an effective pass rusher but he surely will have better offers in the offseason and could look to play some place where he can get to that elusive Super Bowl.
Williams’ play had been slipping the past few seasons but he was still the most effective tackle for Minnesota. He had 3.5 sacks and still did his best work in defending the run. Williams has said he’s open to a return and the Vikings — with only four linemen under contract for 2014 — could perhaps bring him back. Williams did play nose tackle in a pinch during a part of this season and played some of his best snaps of the season at the position, maybe the perfect scenario for him to return and still open up the three-technique spot for Sharrif Floyd, the 2013 first-round pick.
Floyd struggled a bit in his first season and was set back by a knee injury early in the year. But he was also playing his best later in the season. Floyd will be a cornerstone of the line going forward. Letroy Guion and Chase Baker are the only other tackles with a contract for next year. Guion was still miscast as a nose tackle and underwhelming in his second year as a starter. Fred Evans has stood out more as Guion’s backup the past two seasons and is a free agent. His return is no sure thing, and both are probably better served as backups.
Brian Robison was signed to a contract extension this season and will likely assume the leadership position among the linemen. As a strongside end, Robison plays the run and also has developed as a pass rusher. He set a new career-high with nine sacks this season and has improved by a half-sack each of the past three seasons as a starter. Pro Football Focus even graded Robison out with 63 quarterback hurries this season, the most of any defensive end in the league.
Everson Griffen was picked by many as a breakout player heading into the season, but he didn’t have the impact expected. Griffen had 5.5 sacks after tallying eight last season. He continued his role of situational pass rusher that plays on the outside and inside. On passing downs, Griffen would often line up in one of the tackle spots. Griffen too is a free agent. Once considered a potential replacement for Allen, his status will be one to watch in the offseason as well. Minnesota doesn’t have any young players waiting for their chance, like Floyd inside.
From the beginning, the Vikings looked shorthanded at linebacker. When the team couldn’t find a middle linebacker to replace Jasper Brinkley in the offseason, Erin Henderson moved inside. Marvin Mitchell became the starter on the weakside and Minnesota’s depth was largely inexperienced. The Vikings didn’t use a third linebacker much, playing most of the season in the nickel defense.
The one hope was Desmond Bishop, coming back after missing all of the previous season for the Green Bay Packers.
Henderson and Mitchell were the starters early until Bishop finally forced his way into the lineup. But shortly after earning the starting spot on the weakside, Bishop was lost for the year with a knee injury. That put the onus back on Mitchell, who underperformed as a starter.
Henderson had big tackle numbers, finishing second on the team 112 tackles to go with two interceptions. He played the run well, but struggled in pass coverage, which was an issue because of the need for him to play in the nickel defense. Henderson eventually lost his starting spot after missing a game because of "personal" reasons and Audie Cole played well in his place. Eventually, Henderson was moved back outside as a starter before Cole suffered an injury and Henderson ended the season in the middle.
There will likely be changes to the linebackers, too, this offseason, but the changes could come internally. Cole will likely at least get a chance to compete for a starting spot. Rookie Michael Mauti improved throughout the season after major knee surgery caused him to slip to the seventh round of the draft. But he was looking quick and confident, playing mostly special teams, at the end of the season and could be in the mix to start in the middle next year, too. Henderson has one more year remaining on his contract but had two DWI arrests in the span of six weeks, making his future uncertain.
Cole was released during a roster crunch only to return and then get the chance to start. He splashed when given the chance and showed a knack for being in the right place in pass coverage and also some success as a blitzer. He finished with 45 tackles and a sack. Gerald Hodges was a fourth-round draft pick who was expected to get an opportunity on the outside, but he played sparingly. Larry Dean continued his strong special teams work.
Chad Greenway had a down season by his standards, despite leading the team in tackles again, with 134. He added three sacks and had a team-high three interceptions. Greenway played much of the season through a broken wrist and the injury seemed to effect him when trying to wrap up tackles. He also slipped in coverage, but the team seemed plagued by mistakes in communication that led to coverage breakdowns.
Injuries really created this grade. The outlook of the safety play for the Vikings would be different if Harrison Smith, the team’s best playmaker in the secondary, had played the entire season. But he didn’t. Smith missed eight games because of a toe injury and clearly wasn’t himself when he returned. Despite the missed time, he still was tied for second with two interceptions and was tied for fifth on the team with 58 tackles. After Minnesota traded up to get Smith in the first round in the 2012 draft, he’s proven to be a difference-maker.
Jamarca Sanford was third on the team with 75 tackles, despite missing three games himself. But Sanford also didn’t come up with so many of the big plays that defined his breakthrough 2012 season. He missed in some coverage responsibilities and the usually sure-tackler missed a few tackles too.
Andrew Sendejo was known mostly for his special teams work, but he filled in for Smith and showed some skills as a safety. He was particularly strong in run defense and was fourth on the team with 84 tackles. Like Smith, he was also a willing hitter. He had one interception, which stands out in a Vikings’ secondary that struggled to take the ball away. Mistral Raymond wasn’t a factor and Robert Blanton did most of his work as a nickel cornerback.
The real issue for Minnesota was on the back end at cornerback, and has been for the past several years. Despite a defensive-minded coach who was a former defensive back and a defensive coordinator who got the job after his work as a defensive backs coach, the Vikings were burned by opposing quarterbacks again. Minnesota allowed a league-high 37 passing touchdowns and the 12 interceptions were tied for the eighth-fewest in the NFL.
And the Vikings cornerbacks weren’t the ones getting the interceptions. Of their 12 interceptions, only three were by cornerbacks. A.J. Jefferson, who was the first cornerback to get an interception in Week 9, was eventually released. Minnesota went four more games without an interception by a cornerback until Marcus Sherels, the team’s punt returner pressed into action, had one in Week 14. Shaun Prater, claimed off waivers in October, had the other.
Chris Cook, a free agent this offseason, might have finished his time with the Vikings and never had an interception. Cook again dealt with injuries, missing four games. But most importantly, Cook struggled in coverage. Josh Robinson, getting his first chance as a starter, was woeful in coverage before he missed the final six games because of an injury. Jefferson struggled in coverage before he was released because of a domestic assault arrest.
The one bright spot was the progress of rookie Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes had his struggles early and, curiously, was stuck behind Robinson as the coaching staff let him adapt to the NFL game in his first season after being a first-round pick out of Florida State. Later in the year, Rhodes really started to show his potential as a big, physical cover cornerback. But he missed the final three games with an ankle injury.
Sherels, against long odds, continues to defy expectations and was serviceable at times as a replacement when injuries hit. Prater also showed some potential in getting a shot late in the season. Minnesota will again have to address the secondary this offseason.
The defense ultimately cost the coaches their jobs. Frazier was fired after the season, and the rest of his staff could eventually find their way out too after a new coach is hired and wants to bring in his own coaches.
Frazier was well-liked by the players. He was well-respected as a person and was able to guide the team through the distractions that would often arise. But simply, Frazier didn’t win enough to stick around. Players praised his calm, steady approach and they always knew what to expect. Of course, some changes might have helped Minnesota avoid the pitfalls early in the season.
Frazier’s loyalty led him to continue to play some players when backups were faring better. No one knows if the continued return of Ponder as a starter was Frazier’s decision or an organizational decision. But Frazier was likely loyal to Ponder. When Josh Robinson continued to fail, Frazier didn’t install Rhodes as the starter over the second-year player.
Frazier’s in-game coaching had been a concern for the past several years, but he excelled as a manager and the players enjoyed playing for him. Once the results plummeted, so did Frazier’s standing.
Offensive coaching: C
Minnesota scored points this season and had a lot of offensive potential. But the continued issues at quarterback will define the coaching staff. Bill Musgrave was much-maligned. He would design game plans at times that would take opponents by surprise, but most often seemed unimaginative and predictable.
Musgrave was brought in with a reputation for working with quarterbacks. But Ponder never developed into the franchise quarterback the organization needed. Josh Freeman was added, but the coaches couldn’t get anything out of him.
Cordarrelle Patterson showed his unique talents, but the coaching staff was slow to use him in the offense. Patterson’s talent suggests he didn’t need the time to develop. He just has a knack for running with the ball in his hands and the team didn’t utilize that talent until late.
Defensive coaching: D
In some respects, coaches could only do so much with the defensive lineup it was putting out on game day, especially when injuries hit and particularly in the secondary. But the defense was a mess this season and was the biggest factor in the 1-6 start. Whether it was giving up the lead in the final minute five times this season, or the lack of turnovers, Minnesota couldn’t make the plays it needed. After giving up the game-winning score in the final minute at Dallas, the team veterans complained about the play-calling. In a last-minute loss at Chicago, breakdowns in communication were apparent.
Rhodes was held back a bit early in the season and the coaches stuck with Josh Robinson when he was having a tough time. When Bishop looked like he would be the best option at linebacker, the coaches continued to use Mitchell. This group of coaches was never able to coax much improvement or strong play from the cornerbacks.