Vikings 2013 Season Grades: Defense and Special Teams

Hannah Foslien

We take another look at how our team did in 2013, aside from the overall team record. Which positional groups ranked highly, and which will need to improve?

Continuing our look at the Vikings 2013 season, we turn our focus to the defensive side of the ball, as well as special teams.  As I mentioned in the companion article grading the offense, it's time to figure out what went wrong with the 2013 season.  And since I'm a teacher and my life revolves around grading my students, why not hand out grades for each of our positional groups?  Let's get to it!

2013 Defense Grades

Defensive Line: Jared Allen, Brian Robison, Kevin Williams, Letroy Guion, Everson Griffen, Sharrif Floyd, Fred Evans, Chase Baker and Justin Trattou

The defensive line was sort of an enigma this year.  Through the first part of the year, they hadn't generated very many sacks and allowed Reggie Bush and Matt Forte to reach nearly 90 yards on the ground in the first two games of the year.  But as the season went along, the defensive line tightened up their run defense.  By the end of the year they finished 16th in rushing defense, allowing  an average of 4.0 yards per carry, and Football Outsiders ranked the run defense of the defensive line 10th overall.  In terms of passing defense, and the ability to generate pressure on the QB, Football Outsiders ranked the line 17th in adjusted sack rate.

There weren't many highlights from an individual perspective, but Pro Football Focus rated Brian Robison as their 16th best 4-3 defensive end (out of 52) as he was clearly our best defensive end.  Jared Allen only ranked 34th in the PFF player grades, but he did have a team high 11.5 sacks, good enough to rank tied for 7th in the NFL and it marks his 7th straight year in a row of double-digit sacks.  Kevin Williams was once again our highest rated defensive tackle, graded as 27th best out of 69 by Pro Football Focus.  He was also the only tackle with a positive "green" grade.  Fred Evans, Shariff Floyd, and Letroy Guion were the only other tackles graded by PFF, and they ranked a disappointing 46th, 49th and 60th respectively.

Final Grade: C+

Teacher Notes: This unit was merely average this year, and if the front office doesn't make some big moves to address the impending departures of free agents Kevin Williams, Jared Allen and Everson Griffen, the defensive line could take another step backward.

Linebackers: Chad Greenway, Erin Henderson, Audie Cole, Marvin Mitchell, Michael Mauti, Gerald Hodges, Larry Dean, and Desmond Bishop

The linebackers were perhaps the weakest link on an already weak defense.  That said they also dealt with a lot of turmoil due to injuries and legal issues.  Losing Desmond Bishop early on, just when it seemed like he was turning a corner, dealt a big blow, and then losing Erin Henderson for a few games further jumbled what was already a mixed up situation.

In what was otherwise a mix-and-match of players at linebacker, Chad Greenway occupied the strong side the entire year.  On the one hand, Greenway lead the team in tackles by a huge margin, totaling 134, good enough to rank 10th in the league.  On the other hand, he also lead the league in missed tackles, with 21 total.  Pro Football Focus ranked Chad Greenway 34th out of 35 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers, garnering a terrible -19.4 rating.  He was particularly bad in coverage, and run defense, but graded out average as a pass rusher and didn't rack up many penalties.  While he was particularly bad in coverage, he did manage 3 interceptions.  Erin Henderson and Audie Cole had a slightly better year in the middle, grading out almost identically.  While they tied for 18th in PFF grades (out of 55 qualifying inside linebackers), they couldn't have been more different in their strengths and weaknesses.  Henderson was very good in run defense, but terrible in coverage, whereas Audie Cole was generally good in coverage, but not very good in run defense.  I would have guessed the exact opposite knowing what kind of players they are known to be, but this is how Pro Football Focus graded them.  Marvin Mitchell was essentially a league average option on the weak side, ranked 20th out of 35 among outside linebackers.  He was very undistinguished, not garnering any extreme PFF grades (good or bad) in any particular area.  And that seems telling, since I can't even remember a single play from Marvin Mitchell in 2013.

Final Grade: D-

Teacher Comments: This is what you get when you lose your starting middle linebacker, and don't really address the position in the offseason.  Moving Erin Henderson from the weak side to the middle was an emergency patch-job, and it didn't work.  It remains to be seen if Audie Cole or Michael Mauti can handle the reins of the middle linebacker job, but we'll need some major upgrades at linebacker regardless as Erin Henderson has likely drank himself off the team.

Cornerbacks: Chris Cook, Josh Robinson, Xavier Rhodes, AJ Jefferson, Marcus Sherels, Shaun Prater, and Robert Steeples

It seems like every year our cornerback situation somehow finds a way to get worse, either due to injuries, legal issues and/or just poor performance.  And this past season was no different.  I don't know what we need to do to change what is becoming a very annoying trend, but I do know one thing: Chris Cook is not the long term answer at cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings.  In 4 seasons he has recorded exactly 0 interceptions and has not managed to stay on the field for a full season even once.  Aside from a couple good games here and there, what exactly has he been able to accomplish?

Coaching decisions aside, Xavier Rhodes was clearly our best cornerback on the year, as he was the only cornerback on the team to earn a "green" grade from Pro Football Focus.  He was ranked 46th out of 110 qualifying cornerbacks putting him in the top half of the league.  After that only Marcus Sherels, Chris Cook and Josh Robinson played enough to earn a reliable grade, and all were in the red ranked 88th, 95th and 99th respectively.  This is abysmal.  In short, we have what is essentially one starting caliber cornerback in Xavier Rhodes, and a bunch of backups.  It's worth pointing out that in the few games Robinson played on the outside before he went on IR, his performance was markedly better in both coverage and run blocking, but he had a terrible start to the year in the slot (a position he had never played before in his life in the lead up to the season).  Shaun Prater looks like a very nice free agent pickup, and graded out as essentially a league average option in limited action, so it's possible he could fill the void left in our depth by AJ Jefferson who was cut for his own legal issues.

Final Grade: D+

Teacher Comments: If not for Xavier Rhodes, this would have easily been the worst unit on defense, but because of his excellent season, as a rookie, it gets a smallish bump.  Bottom line, this position will need to be addressed in a major way this offseason, and hopefully the future plans don't include Chris "I haven't caught a single interception in 4 years" Cook.

Safeties: Harrison Smith, Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond, Andrew Sendejo, and Robert Blanton

Believe it or not, but there wasn't a single safety who graded in the "green" of Pro Football Focus' player grades.  The highest rated safety was Jamarca Sanford, ranked 34th out of a possible 86 qualifying safeties.  Andrew Sendejo and Harrison Smith were the only other players to qualify, ranked 43rd and 61st respectively.  It just wasn't a great year for our safeties, especially due to injuries.  Harrison Smith seemed to have something of a sophomore slump in addition to getting injured, as he looked dreadful in coverage, but very good in run defense, frequently able to wrap up and record a lot of stops.  Andrew Sendejo looked even better in that regard.  Robert Blanton actually played more snaps at cornerback than he did as a safety, but either way looked average at best.

At the end of the day, our passing defense (which falls mostly on the cornerbacks and safeties) was ranked 31st in the league in total passing yards allowed, and 23rd in yards per attempt allowed.  We routinely got beat through the air, and couldn't find a way to get off the field.  The passing defense was 3rd worst in 1st down % allowed, and 3rd worst in passer rating allowed.

Final Grade: D

Teacher Comments: We will need to consider an upgrade to the safety position, and hope that Harrison Smith returns healthy and back to his rookie year form.  The depth at safety looks promising with Andrew Sendejo stepping up in the absence of Harrison Smith, but Jamarca Sanford looks like a league average option at best, even though he had a pretty good year compared to the rest of our safeties (and that says it all).

Summary

This defense was one of the worst defenses in franchise history, due to a plethora of injury, legal and scheme issues.  The 2013 defense allowed a league worst 30 points per game, 3rd worst 3rd down percentage, 2nd worst time of possession allowed and even managed to rack up the 3rd most penalty yards. It's a year to forget for the defense, and there will probably be massive turnover heading into the 2014 season.  Many starters will become free agents, but no new deals are in place yet for: Kevin Williams, Jared Allen, Everson Griffen, Fred Evans, Marvin Mitchell and Chris Cook.  And it seems likely that Erin Henderson will be released this offseason after continuing to have alcohol issues.  Even Desmond Bishop may not return from another gruesome season ending injury.  The math on that says 5-7 of our 11 starters on defense may not be with the team next year.  And for a unit that performed so poorly, this is probably a good thing, assuming we can find upgrades in free agency and the draft.

2013 Special Teams Grades

Kickers and Longsnapper: Blair Walsh, Jeff Locke, and Cullen Loeffler

Blair Walsh had another great year to follow up a record breaking rookie season last year, and he did it all with a sore hamstring for the first half of the year.  Pro Football Focus rated him as the 8th best placekicker on the year and he ranked 10th in total touchbacks.  He regressed to the mean a bit on 50+ yard field goals making only 2 of 5 tries after not missing a single one his rookie year.  But of all his kicks from 49 yards out or shorter, he missed only 1 and was perfect from 39 yards or less.

Jeff Locke on the other hand had a rough outing as a rookie punter.  Pro Football Focus ranked him 40th out of a possible 41 punters on the year, ahead of only Adam Podlesh of the Chicago Bears (and behind Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger who each had a punt!).  His maximum hang time was 5.1 seconds, tied for 21st best and his average punting distance was 44.2 yards, good enough for 26th best.  48% of his punts were returned, which ranked 28th among punters.  Whether by design or not, only 1 of his punts all year went out of bounds which is a little unusual.  Only 26 of his 75 punts were downed inside the 20, ranking him tied for 17th.  And in the single most important stat with regards to punters, net yards per punt, Locke ranked 24th netting only 39.1 yards.  There wasn't a single stat in which Jeff Locke excelled and the accumulation of a bunch of average and below average numbers combined to give him one of the worst overall grades from Pro Football Focus.  Lastly, Pro Football Focus doesn't really provide any specific "long snapper" stats, but they did grade Loeffler in the negative generally on their special teams metrics, for whatever that is worth.

Final Grade: B

Teacher Comments: While Blair Walsh is human after all, he's still very, very good.  Jeff Locke had a rough rookie year, but there's still hope this 5th round pick pans out with more development and practice.

Coverage Units

And speaking of the Special Teams metrics, Pro Football Focus provides individual grades for the 39 players who participated in some form of special teams snaps whether it was on kickoffs, punts, kick returns or punt returns.  Of those 39 players, only the following graded in the "green": Gerald Hodges, Toby Gerhart, Matt Asiata, Andrew Sendejo, Jerome Felton, Joe Berger, Audie Cole and Joe Banyard.  Larry Dean just misses out on a green grade, but has the distinction of racking up the most special teams tackles with 15 on the year.  The following players all graded in the "red" and had a poor showing on special teams coverage units: AJ Jefferson, John Carlson, Rhett Ellison, Everson Griffen, Josh Robinson, Mistral Raymond, Rodney Smith, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Marcus Sherels.

It's tough to gauge just how effective the coverage units are, but the evidence is in the final yardage totals.  For kickoff units, we can look at the average starting position of opposing offenses.  In this case, when Blair Walsh kicked off, the coverage units allowed opposing teams to start at the 24-yard line on average, good enough to rank 38th in the league (out of 54 kickers), which isn't really that good.  For punts, we can look at the total allowed punt return yards, per punt.  In this case, the Vikings coverage unit allowed an average of 8.8 return yards per punt, good enough to rank 16th in the league (out of 41), which is slightly above average.

Final Grade: C+

Teacher Comments: There isn't anything outstanding about the coverage units, nor is there anything terrible either.  It's a little disconcerting to see some solid rotational and backup guys grade so poorly on special teams, like Everson Griffen, John Carlson, Mistral Raymond, Sharrif Floyd and Marcus Sherels.  If these guys want to stay in the NFL, they are going to have to do better on Special Teams.

Kick and Punt Returns: Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels

It should come as no surprise that Cordarrelle Patterson was hands down the best kick returner in the league this past season as that is part of the reason the Vikings moved up in the draft looking to replace Percy Harvin.  Pro Football Focus has him graded as their #1 returner, and he ranked #3 overall in kick return average behind only Percy Harvin and Travis Benjamin (who combined for a total of only 4 returns).  For all practical purposes, Patterson had the #1 average for qualifying returners at 32.4 yards per return.  He was also the only returner this year to score more than one return touchdown AND tied an NFL record for longest kickoff return by returning a kickoff 109 yards.  It was an outstanding year for Patterson as a kick returner, and by the end of the year teams were simply kicking it away from him.  Oh, and he made the Pro Bowl as a result.

Marcus Sherels had a very underrated year as a punt returner, grading out as the 17th best returner out of 139 returners.  He had the 4th best punt return average with 15.2 yards per punt and was one of only 12 players to return a punt for a touchdown.  He also had the 5th longest punt return of 86 yards.  For a backup cornerback and special teamer, Marcus Sherels may have found a way to make a living as a Minnesota Viking as their clear-cut best option for punt returns.

Final Grade: A+

Teacher Comments: Keep it up guys!  We have the single best pair of returners in the NFL, and if there is one super bright spot on the team, this is it.

Summary

Special Teams is easy to overlook, but their importance in the field position game is crucial.  Having the best kick returner in the game is one of the primary reasons our offense had the 9th best starting field position in 2013.  And the fact that we scored 3 touchdowns on special teams makes their impact even greater.  If Jeff Locke can take the next step forward, we could have one of the best Special Teams units in the NFL.

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