The Vikings defense limped through the season last year, disappointing early and often during the season before being blown up against the Saints on Christmas day last year. They gave up 52 points before a national audience that afternoon, and suffered the worst year-end ranking in points allowed (29th) in Mike Zimmer’s career as either a defensive coordinator or head coach- giving up the most points (475) a Zimmer defense has ever allowed.
It was a severe decline across the board for Zimmer, who had previously led top ten ranked defenses in eight of his previous nine seasons as head coach and/or defensive coordinator- the only exception was an 11th ranked defense his first year in Minnesota. His defense was one of the worst ravaged by injuries to key veterans, which in turn made it all the more difficult for rookies and young players to hold up well. His backups largely failed to rise to the challenge of becoming starters, and most of them are now no longer with the team.
An Off-Season of Reconstruction
Such poor performances may have served as a eye-opener to Zimmer, his coaching staff, and front office, who’ve spent the off-season largely rebuilding their defensive roster. Shamar Stephen was cut. Ifeadi Odenighbo, Jaleel Johnson, Chris Jones and Anthony Harris were not pursued in free agency.
Instead, they signed upgrades: Dalvin Tomlinson, Patrick Peterson, Xavier Woods, and MacKensie Alexander. They also signed Stephen Weatherly and drafted two more defensive ends to compete for the right defensive end spot, and added a blitzing linebacker in the 3rd round.
In the meantime, Danielle Hunter was recovering from his neck injury; Anthony Barr from his pectoral surgery; Eric Kendricks from his quad injury; and Michael Pierce is now back in after opting out last season.
Overall, that gives the Vikings defense a total of nine new starters compared to the end of last season, the only two starters that finished the season last year being Harrison Smith and Cameron Dantzler. There’ll most likely be a number of new backups as well.
An Upgraded New Starting Line-up
The resulting new starting line-up for the Vikings defense this season may be the most talented and seasoned group that Mike Zimmer has ever assembled. Let’s take a look at them one at a time.
LDE Danielle Hunter
In the last season Hunter played in 2019, he ended the season with 97 pressures, including 18 sacks. His overall PFF grade was 89.0, which ranked 8th in the league and he ranked 6th in total sacks.
Having a full year to heal from his neck injury and still early in his prime, Hunter could easily return to the type of production he had in 2019 again this season.
NT Michael Pierce
Pierce is two years removed from an elite graded season at NT and dominant run defender. His 2019 season was hampered by an ankle injury, and after opting-out last season, is set to return in the best shape of his pro career, having adopted a new nutrition regimen while continuing with his prowess in the weight room. Earlier this spring he was reportedly tipping the scales at 341 pounds- his listed weight. In previous years with the Ravens his increasing weight was an issue, having put on 30 or 40 pounds during the 2019 off-season, but now Pierce is at what he regards as an optimal playing weight and with the lowest body fat he’s ever had.
All that bodes well for his returning to peak form on the field as well.
DT Dalvin Tomlinson
Tomlinson was priority #1 in free agency this off-season for the Vikings, and they secured a deal the minute the tampering period began. The reason is pretty clear. He’s not only the best 3-technique defensive tackle the Vikings have had in the Zimmer era, and really since Kevin Williams, he also is a perfect fit for what Mike Zimmer and Andre Patterson are doing schematically up front.
At 320 pounds, and next to Pierce at 340 pounds, they present as close to two immovable objects on the defensive line as you’ll see anywhere in the NFL. Good luck running inside on either of these two. Tomlinson has also improved as an interior pass rusher, fully capable of taking an opposing guard straight back into the quarterback, or slipping by with a quick over move. Tomlinson being used more as a 3-tech in Minnesota could see his production increase, as he faced more double-teams with the Giants.
Right Defensive End
The only unknown defensive starter at this point is at right defensive end. We will know more by the end of training camp who the likely starter will be, after what may be the most intense competition for any spot on the roster. DJ Wonnum, Stephen Weatherly, Patrick Jones, and Janarius Robinson all will be vying for the starting job. My guess is that ultimately there will be a rotation to begin the season, but perhaps one man will ultimately beat out the rest and become the bona fide starter.
SAM Anthony Barr
It’s been a while since the 4x Pro Bowler Anthony Barr had a true Pro-Bowl caliber season, but he has been fairly steady over his six seasons prior to last year’s game-and-a-half injury-shortened season. Over that stretch he’s averaged 20 QB pressures, 3 sacks, 60 tackles, and 35 run stops a season. Barr remains an effective pass rusher and run defender, and seldom gives up big plays, but hasn’t been as effective in coverage, and seldom is able to break up the typical 10-yard pass in his coverage.
However, the changes Mike Zimmer is implementing this off-season may do a better job of utilizing Barr’s skill set, cutting his number of coverage snaps and/or reducing his coverage responsibilities, and focus more on run defense and pass rush duties. Barr remains a rarity for an off-ball linebacker, possessing the size of a traditional, old-school linebacker, while also having the athleticism of smaller, modern linebackers.
MLB Eric Kendricks
2019 All-Pro Eric Kendricks has elevated his game the last two years, largely due to his elite coverage ability. While last season his run defense grade was down, largely due to a less effective defensive line in front of him, his coverage grade remained elite and his overall grade remained among the best.
A stouter defensive front could be just the thing for Kendricks to earn a second All-Pro accolade.
SCB MacKensie Alexander
Alexander returns to the Vikings after a one-year hiatus in Cincinnati more appreciative of the Vikings coaching than he was when he left. Alexander remains one of the better slot corners in coverage, both is yards allowed per coverage snap and passer rating allowed, ranking 15th in both last year.
Jeff Gladney had the same yards allowed per coverage snap in the slot as Alexander, but higher passer rating allowed and lower receptions per coverage snap. So, depending on what happens with Gladney’s off-field issue, there is good depth here as well.
CB Patrick Peterson
Peterson was a surprise addition for the Vikings in free agency, as Peterson sought out Mike Zimmer and the Vikings as a preferred place to start the 2nd chapter in his likely Hall of Fame career. The 3x All-Pro and 8x Pro-Bowler over his ten years in Arizona is said to have lost a step over the last couple years. His passer rating allowed when targeted has climbed to 100 the last couple years, up from his career average of 85, and his reception % allowed when targeted has climbed from around 55% to 67%.
But there is some context here that’s important as well. Peterson had 4.3” speed coming into the league, and it’s to be expected after ten years he may no longer be quite as fast. But by comparison, if Peterson lost a step over the past couple years, Xavier Rhodes lost 3 in his last couple years with the Vikings. Peterson was still able to run with Jalen Reagor late last season, who has 4.3” speed, well enough to break up the pass on a deep post route.
The issue isn’t really that Peterson isn’t fast or athletic enough anymore to cover as well as he used to, it’s really more that at age 31 (in July), he’s not quite as effective shadowing the other team’s best receiver in man coverage, playing either outside or in the slot, while field marshalling the secondary, and doing so for 43 coverage snaps a game, as he was frequently asked to do in Arizona’s coverage scheme.
On the other hand, in a simplified role as the right (or left) outside cornerback, playing zone coverage 75% of the time, he could be as productive as ever, and extend his career at a high level for several years, as is his intent. And that’s most likely what his role will be with the Vikings.
CB Cameron Dantzler
Dantzler was the second highest graded rookie cornerback last season, and the 4th highest graded cornerback in the league since he returned from injury week 11. Doing so behind one of the worst pass rushing defensive fronts in the league, forcing him to cover for longer, made it an even better achievement.
That rookie season performance makes for a solid foundation on which to build this season. Adding in an off-season program and a little more strength and size, and a great mentor in Patrick Peterson, and Dantzler could be on the fast track for a Pro Bowl caliber season.
S Xavier Woods
Woods comes to the Vikings from Dallas, and a down season where he was asked to play more strong safety than free safety, which was his role in his (better) three seasons prior. Replacing Anthony Harris, Woods will most likely return to his free safety role, where he has been solid- allowing just a 56.4 passer rating when targeted in 2019.
Zimmer talked about seeing ‘another level’ to Woods’ game when he was acquired in free agency, and that, “this is going to be a good situation for him,” suggesting he sees a better role/fit for Woods in his scheme this season. In any case, Woods has been a relative bright spot in a Dallas defense that graded worse than the Vikings overall last season, and a more than capable safety in the right role.
S Harrison Smith
Former All-Pro and 5x Pro Bowler Harrison Smith returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Vikings’ secondary, following a down, but still above average, season in 2020. Like Eric Kendricks, Smith’s performance was effected by the play around him, leading to a lower coverage grade, although his tackling and pass rush grades actually improved from the previous year.
Fully Armed and Operational
On paper this Vikings defense may be more talented overall than the 2017 edition, which was #1 in the league. At this point the only ‘hole’ in the starting lineup is really more of a question mark at right defensive end, and that question mark may turn into a quality starter once the season gets under-way. Beyond that, there isn’t a real weak spot on the entire defensive starting roster. And that is what could make this defense so tough in the coming season.
With multiple Pro-Bowl or Pro-Bowl caliber starters at every level of the defense, and no poor or below-average starters at any position, there isn’t much weakness for an opposing offense to exploit. On the contrary, this is a defense that has the quality and flexibility to exploit any weaknesses an opposing offense presents on game day, and can afford to be more aggressive at times, knowing they have the players that can handle their responsibilities in those situations. All that puts a lot of pressure on opposing offenses, which can lead to forced errors and poor execution.
Apart from injuries, the main obstacle to going from paper to the field is getting all the new, or one-year removed players back into form, up to speed on the scheme and their assignments, and integrated into a cohesive unit. In other words, a good and productive off-season and pre-season program.
In practice, it’s not uncommon for new free agent acquisitions to take a season before they’re fully acclimated to their new situation. For example, Linval Joseph took a season before he was hitting on all cylinders, but then again he got shot in the leg shortly after arriving in Minnesota. For veterans like Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson playing interior line spots, the learning curve should be an easy one. Similarly, for players one year removed, whether guys like Hunter and Barr, or MacKensie Alexander, getting up-and-running should be relatively easy, knowing the system, coaches and teammates. Lastly, for Patrick Peterson and Xavier Woods, the primary challenge coming into a new system will be to gain an understanding of the scheme and play-calling, and communicating well on the field. For a guy like Patrick Peterson, this should all be routine- especially on-field communication. And for both Peterson and Woods, their new roles may be better suited for them which could make the transition that much easier. Moreover, in a unit where every other player has been to the Pro Bowl one or more times, getting everyone integrated and assignment sound may be a little easier.
And Under the Radar
Nationally, this rebuilt Vikings defense is almost entirely under the radar. Michael Pierce was last year’s news, Hunter going down wasn’t nearly the news nationally that Nick Bosa was. A DT here, and old Patrick Peterson there, whatever. Not gonna move the needle much, and last year they were terrible. This is the national view, to the extent the Vikings defense is even thought of at all, which isn’t much.
Perhaps the most positive comment I’ve read nationally about the Vikings defense this off-season was a general comment that Mike Zimmer won’t allow his defense to be that bad again, so it should at least be a little better this season. The only one I’ve seen to really put all the pieces together is Mike Clay at ESPN, who put together 2021 projections for each offensive and defensive position group, prior to the draft:
Those projections, however they were determined, had the Vikings as the 5th ranked defense overall, but also tied for 3rd best grade. I’m not sure I agree with all the grades, but clearly an upgrade from the 29th ranked defense last season.
My own view is that if they can stay relatively healthy, this Vikings defense may rival the 2017 squad as one of the best the Vikings have had since the 1970s. There is also a chance that the scheme changes Zimmer has discussed could add to the roster improvement as a better fit for the current personnel.
We’ll see how everything unfolds, but at this stage all signs point to a much improved Vikings defense this season.
Will the Vikings defense be at least top ten this year?
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