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A Return to a Top Ranked Defense?

Mike Zimmer’s defense looks poised to return to its top rankings prior to 2020

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Apart from last season, Mike Zimmer’s defense has ranked no worse than 11th in points allowed over the past ten seasons. Among defensive coordinators and defense-oriented head coaches, only Bill Belichick can claim that level of sustained success defensively over the past decade, although Mike Tomlin with the Steelers is close, and Vic Fangio isn’t far off either.

But last year was a disaster for Zimmer’s defense- a perfect storm created by: a) turning over the defensive roster, replacing several guys not earning their cap space with mainly rookies to get under the cap; b) finding out after-the-fact that there would be no off-season or pre-season to train those rookies; and c) losing almost all the key starters Zimmer was counting on to ease the transition - Pierce, Hunter, Barr, Hill, Hughes, Boyd, Kendricks - even Dantzler for four games. By the end of the season, the Vikings had more Adjusted Games Lost on defense according to Football Outsiders, than all but 2 teams in the NFL. That forced Zimmer to cobble together a defense made up largely of backups, rookies without an off-season, and mostly low-tier vets acquired mid-season.

The results, given all that, were predictable.

A New Season, A New Roster

Now, with a new league year under way, the Vikings are making moves to shore up their defense in advance of the Draft and 2021 season. They’re also getting players back from injury. Michael Pierce will finally begin his career with the Vikings at NT. Danielle Hunter will be back at LDE. Dalvin Tomlinson will play 3T for the Vikings, and for now it appears Stephen Weatherly and D.J. Wonnum will combine to man the other defensive end spot. That’s a pretty formidable front four, even if Weatherly and Wonnum are a bit more uncertain. Adding more competition to that spot in the draft or free agency is possible too.

At the second level, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr return, with Barr in what is now a contract year.

On the back end, all the rookies will have a year under their belt, and hopefully a real off-season for further development as well. Harrison Smith returns, and will be joined by another multi-year All-Pro and Pro Bowler in Patrick Peterson at CB. Peterson isn’t the shut-down corner he once was, but he’ll likely play more zone coverage with the Vikings than he did in Arizona (one of the heaviest man-coverage teams), which could be just what he needs to regain his status as a top CB. Cameron Dantzler was the top rookie CB last season, despite the Vikings being dead last in pass rush PFF grade, and 3rd worst in QB pressures. Even more promising for the coming season is the way Dantzler finished after coming back from injury week 11: 4th highest graded CB in the league according to PFF, and 3rd best in passer rating allowed when targeted. That’s not too shabby for a rookie CB without an off-season and basically the worst pass rush support. MacKensie Alexander will also return and compete for the slot cornerback job with Jeff Gladney, and Xavier Woods will replace Anthony Harris at free safety.

Overall, the Vikings’ defense looks pretty solid, but still have less than ideal RDE rotation, at least in terms of proven production, and perhaps the same at base linebacker. Depth is an issue as well at several positions, but such is the case across the league, and why injuries typically have such an impact on team fortunes. Some of the roster issues may be improved in the draft as well.

On paper, this looks to be about as good a defensive roster as any Zimmer’s had since coming to Minnesota. Clearly having a healthy, upgraded roster from a year ago is a good thing, but sometimes what looks good on paper can prove to be a disappointment - player regression, new guys not fully acclimated, difficulty gelling as a unit, poor scheme fit, etc.. That’s where coaching comes in.

Coaching Will Be Key

Getting everyone acclimated to the scheme, gelling through good communication and understanding of assignments, and tailoring scheme to fit player strengths can go a long way toward alleviating the major causes of roster disappointment or underachievement. Zimmer has done a good job of that in the past, as shown in his defensive rankings the last ten years. In his Cincinnati years, he had a reputation for producing top ‘no name’ defenses - top defenses without many marquee players. This year, he’s hired his long-time acolyte Paul Guenther to help out in teaching his scheme to his young players and newcomers, which should help in getting them acclimated.

The significance of an improved roster is not only higher quality players, but what that can allow when it comes to scheme and play design.

For example, with an improved and more reliable secondary, the opportunity to blitz a guy like Anthony Barr more frequently, without a significant risk of a defensive back or linebacker getting beat for a big play, becomes a more viable option.

It’s worth noting that beginning in 2020, which was a lost season for Barr, he has a significant sack incentive in his contract- which is somewhat unusual for an off-the-ball linebacker. That could be a clue into how Zimmer intends to use Barr going forward. Last year, prior to the pandemic, Zimmer hired Dom Capers as a defensive consultant. His purpose was to provide some new ideas and perspective, which doubtlessly included his long experience with zone blitzes. Given the disruption of last season, Zimmer likely abandoned whatever wrinkles he may have been contemplating early in the off-season. But this season may provide a better opportunity to use them.

Similarly, a stout front against the run may allow Zimmer to go with more Cover-2 variants in the secondary, enabling them to better defend the pass, rather than keep one safety in the box to help against the run. Doing so may invite the opposing offense to run more frequently, particularly as some schemes/QBs audible a run/pass play call at the line based on how many defenders are in the box.

The improved defensive roster could prove to be particularly formidable in the red zone, where Mike Zimmer’s defenses over the years have been particularly adept. Stout interior run defense, quality defensive backs in quarters coverage, linebackers with range and coverage/blitz ability, and an effective pass rush can combine to really challenge offenses where it matters most. Last season, despite an otherwise terrible performance, Zimmer still maintained the 11th best red-zone TD allowed percentage in the league at 58.6%. The best red-zone defense last year was Vic Fangio’s Broncos, at 47.5%. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Vikings defense beat that number this season. In the years prior to 2020, Zimmer’s defense allowed TD conversion rates in the red zone in the low 40s percentage range.

Lastly, the defense may benefit not only from the return and addition of quality starters, and rookies with a year of experience now, but also from added leadership. It’s worth noting that both Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson were team captains, and that leadership could be a welcome addition up front and on the back end, where Harrison Smith may have been a little overwhelmed amidst all the rookies and newcomers.

A Return to a Top Ranked Defense

Given Mike Zimmer’s track record over the last decade, and the upgrades to his defensive roster, a return to a top ten ranking this season - from 29th a year ago - would not be surprising given a reasonably healthy season.

What’s also interesting, is the number of players coming off of down years that could be ready to bounce back again:

Michael Pierce: an opt-out last season, Pierce had a down year in 2019 due to an ankle injury. In his previous two seasons, he had overall PFF grades of 91.0 and 86.9. Pierce also had weight-control issues while with the Ravens, but has taken to a new nutrition program, in addition to his on-going weight room program, and is now in better shape at around 335 pounds. That bodes well for the big NT, and may also help him to play more snaps than he did with the Ravens.

Danielle Hunter: missing all of last season with a neck injury, Hunter recorded his best season in 2019 with an overall PFF grade of 89.0, and nearly 100 pressures. He is reportedly healthy now and whatever contracts issues there are appear to have subsided.

Eric Kendricks: he had a bit of a down year last season, though his coverage grade (90.7) was still elite. His run defense grade was lower, however, undoubtedly related to the relative weakness of the defensive tackles in front of him. Having Pierce and Tomlinson in front of him this year could see Kendricks return to his All-Pro form of 2019.

Harrison Smith: he also had a down year last season, his first non-Pro-Bowl season since 2014. Once again primarily due to a lower run defense grade, although his coverage grade was lower than his elite 91.0 grade of 2019. It’s not much of a stretch to attribute both of these declines to the quality of the Vikings front four, both as run stuffers and pass rushers. An improved front could help Smith regain his Pro-Bowl form this season, although it’s a fair question at age 32 if Smith will show any signs of aging this year.

Patrick Peterson: he had a down year in 2020 and also in a truncated 2019 due to a PED suspension. Peterson’s role shadowing the opposition’s leading receiver, often in man coverage, didn’t change despite the All-Pro cornerback turning 30 last year. Peterson wanted to join the Vikings and Mike Zimmer, mainly for Zimmer’s ability to coach older cornerbacks to extend their high-level career. A revised role for Peterson, perhaps working exclusively as the right cornerback with a higher percentage in zone coverage, could be just the ticket for Peterson to return to his Pro Bowl form. He might also be helped by a better pass rush (AZ ranked 21st last season), and more consistent safety help. Having a few snaps off a game might not hurt either.

Anthony Barr: Barr had a down 2019 campaign and 2020 was basically lost to injury, having appeared in only 2 games. The main issue with Barr is his generally poor coverage ability, having received coverage grades below 60 since 2015. The key for getting more production from Barr may to limit his coverage snaps and focus on his run stop and pass rush ability - basically moving forward rather than backward. It’s not likely he’ll get back to his 2015 - his only elite year in coverage - but he could be more disruptive if used more exclusively as a blitzer and run defender. Using him on the right side to supplement the RDE in pass rush and run defense could yield a consistent pass rush and firm up that side in run defense as well.

Xavier Woods: Woods is yet another player coming off a down season last year. Woods’ role was changed last season from more of a free safety to strong safety, with more slot coverage snaps as well, and it led to a decline in performance. Harrison Smith is typically the strong safety in the Vikings’ scheme, and so Woods returning to more of a free safety role could see his production, particularly in coverage, bounce back up again.

MacKensie Alexander: his down season last year with the Bengals was mainly due to run defense, with the Bengals having a relatively poor front in that regard, putting more pressure on LBs and DBs to make plays. As a relatively small DB, that puts him at a disadvantage. His coverage grade has been consistent the last few seasons, and his passer rating allowed when targeted has been 90 or below the last four years. A stouter defensive front could see his overall performance improve.

Additionally, there are a couple players that could be poised for continued improvement, or even a breakout season.

Cameron Dantzler: as mentioned earlier, Dantzler finished last season after coming back from injury week 11 as 4th highest graded CB in the league according to PFF, and 3rd best in passer rating allowed when targeted. That sort of performance from a rookie CB with a poor pass rush in front of him could easily carry-over into this season. And with a better pass rush and a season under his belt, could even propel him into elite territory.

Dalvin Tomlinson: last season Tomlinson played nearly half his snaps as a NT, taking on double teams. In a 3-4 front, he could even see double teams on occasion at the defensive tackle spot too. This year, he’ll play 3-technique, which should allow him more one-on-one snaps against opposing guards. The increase in one-on-ones could allow Tomlinson to take a step forward in both pass rush and run defense production, and may also allow him to stay on the field for more snaps this season. He averaged about 600 snaps a season with the Giants.

The Jedi Master

It’s clear from free agent press conferences that players want to play for Mike Zimmer, and like his scheme, culture, and coaching ability/style. Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, MacKensie Alexander, and Dalvin Tomlinson all cited those factors to varying degrees in their initial press conferences after being signed. Zimmer has, along with Belichick, a defensive track record over the last ten years second to none. That draws defensive players to Minnesota, along with his reputation for coaching and scheme.

Now Zimmer will have a starting lineup that includes no less than eight Pro-Bowl caliber starters: Hunter, Pierce, Tomlinson, Barr, Kendricks, Peterson, Dantzler and Smith. It will be up to Zimmer to coach and scheme them to the best of their ability, but clearly the players have faith that he can do so. And with Pro-Bowlers and All-Pros leading every position group, and five current or former NFL team captains, the result could be a positive feedback loop and a defensive unit that quickly becomes one of the best in the league.


Where will the Vikings 2021-22 Defense rank in points allowed?

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  • 35%
    Top 5
    (588 votes)
  • 48%
    Top 10
    (788 votes)
  • 14%
    Top Half
    (233 votes)
  • 1%
    Bottom Half
    (18 votes)
  • 0%
    About the same as last year
    (12 votes)
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