What was clear for the Vikings this season, even early on, was that the defense was going to be the weak link. Just how weak a link it was became increasingly disappointing and frustrating, as it clearly prevented the Vikings from advancing further in the playoffs and being a bona fide Super Bowl contender.
While I don’t think it’s entirely on Ed Donatell- clearly he was working with a less than optimal roster at key position groups including linebacker and the defensive secondary- and that had an impact on both results and scheme options. It was also the first year in a new scheme, and there are growing pains associated with that.
Nevertheless, Donatell didn’t seem to be as adaptive and nuanced in his approach, which made the Vikings defense predictable. The Vikings ran the highest or second-highest amount of zone coverage this season, and Donatell varied little from that week-to-week. At the same time, it seemed like pulling teeth to get the defensive backs to play tighter coverage, while there wasn’t much creativity with pressure packages.
Zone coverage on early downs, with occasional man coverage on third downs, depending on the situation, was the predictable coverage mainstay for Donatell this season, with not a lot of pressure packages or creativity with them.
Donatell seemed to adopt a more passive approach to Vic Fangio’s scheme, with a bend-but-don’t-break overriding philosophy- giving up yards but hoping for enough turnovers, stops on 3rd/4th down, and in the red zone to make it effective.
The defense was fine with giving up yards, ranking 31st in that category, but even with ranking 9th in takeaways, 12th on 3rd down and 3rd on 4th down, it wasn’t enough to prevent a ranking of 28th in points allowed. The reason was because they also ranked 21st in the red zone and allowed so many big plays that opposing offenses didn’t face third down as often or the red zone in their scoring drives. That led to a 5th worst ranking in percentage of scoring drives allowed.
That’s the third season in a row of the Vikings ranking near the very bottom of the league in both yards and points allowed, despite the change of scheme. That speaks to the need for new blood on the defensive roster, but also for a more multi-faceted approach than what either Ed Donatell or Mike Zimmer were able to provide in recent years.
Donatell has been first lieutenant under Vic Fangio for many years, working mainly with defensive backs, but he has been a better position coach than coordinator, despite his years under Fangio and knowing his approach and play-calling. Donatell is also 65, so his capacity for changing his approach at this stage probably isn’t the best.
The question, however, is if Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings decide to move on from Donatell, who would they get to replace him?
Possible Replacements for Ed Donatell as Defensive Coordinator
There are at least a few worthy candidates to replace Ed Donatell, should the Vikings decide to move on from him. Unfortunately, a few of the better options among younger, up-and-coming defensive minds are likely long-shots to be available for the Vikings. Those include:
- Brandon Staley, head coach of the Chargers. Speculation after the Chargers loss in the playoffs that he would be fired, but now looks like he’ll continue in that role.
- Ejiro Evero, defensive coordinator for the Broncos, who has ties to both Kevin O’Connell and Kwesi Adofo-Mensah in stops with the Rams and 49ers. But Evero is currently taking head coaching interviews, and Denver blocked an interview request by the Falcons for their defensive coordinator job, so the only way he’d be available to the Vikings is if he doesn’t land a head coaching job and is released by the Broncos after a new head coach is hired. That could happen, but unlikely as he’s well regarded in Denver.
- Jim Schwartz. Neither young nor up-and-coming, but he was a top candidate already hired by the Browns to be their next defensive coordinator.
- Jerod Mayo, Patriots defensive coach. Mayo has declined defensive coordinator interviews as the Patriots are looking to give him a bigger role to keep him on their staff.
So, with those more prominent names unavailable or unlikely to be, let’s look at some that are available.
Vic Fangio, former Broncos head coach
The first option for Kevin O’Connell and the Vikings may be to go after Ed’s old boss, Vic Fangio. He may have been O’Connell’s first choice for defensive coordinator after he was hired, but Fangio decided to take a year off from coaching after being fired as head coach of the Broncos.
Vic Fangio, 64, is the senior defensive guru in the NFL these days, as his scheme has been more widely adopted across the league this year. Some blame it for the low scoring during the season. But there are some pros and cons to having Fangio as the new defensive coordinator for the Vikings, if they move on from Donatell and hire him.
First, he’s 64 and what his commitment is to coaching and developing players in another stint with a new team is problematic. He could be kind of a Gary Kubiak that comes in, installs his scheme (or modifies the Donatell version of his scheme) but doesn’t stick around long, leading to a lack of continuity. He doesn’t have anything to prove at this point, and that isn’t always a good thing.
On the other hand, he’s had success everywhere he’s been since San Francisco over a decade ago and could guide the Vikings defense to significant improvement as a more adept hand at calling defenses, game planning, and adapting his scheme as necessary.
Fangio has interviewed for the Falcons and Panthers defensive coordinator jobs and is also seen as a potential replacement for DeMeco Ryans in San Francisco if he lands a head coaching job. If Ed Donatell is fired, he may well end up joining Fangio wherever he lands. The fact that Fangio would interview to replace his longtime assistant in Minnesota would be a bit awkward, I would imagine, for Fangio which complicates things a bit for him landing in Minnesota.
Jim Leonhard, former U of Wisconsin interim head coach, defensive coordinator
- Leonhard, 40, has been the defensive coordinator at the University of Wisconsin since 2017, amassing an impressive record. Since taking over as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin’s defense ranks inside the top five of the following categories: scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, opponent completion percentage, and opponent third down conversion percentage. Last season, the Badgers were No. 1 nationally in total defense and rushing defense. Still, the question with all successful college coaches is whether they can replicate that success in the NFL.
He’s seen as a defensive guru who uses NFL-style concepts at the college level and is seen as a top candidate for defensive coordinator positions in the NFL. Here is how Leonhard is described schematically while at Wisconsin:
Leonhard is widely regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in all of college football. While he utilizes a base 3-4 scheme, his defense deploys various fronts, with a 2-4-5 design regularly used against pass-heavy teams. Leonhard is known for using an array of stunts and blitz packages to aggressively attack offenses while leaving his defensive backs in man-to-man coverage. That is not to say he does not use zone coverage ever, but Leonhard uses a lot of movement and misdirection to keep offenses guessing, regardless of the coverage.
Leonhard is an incredibly cerebral play-caller and is one of the most intelligent people inside the Wisconsin program. Players frequently highlight how he can make the complicated nuances of reading offenses and learning new techniques easy to understand.
One of his strengths is his adaptability. Leonhard has shown a willingness to adjust his defense each year to match the personnel, which has helped maintain Wisconsin’s stout defense year in and year out, despite player turnover each season. Still, the question with any college coach is whether they can have the same success at the NFL level as they had at the college level.
Leonard could be a good fit for the Vikings as they have an increasing number of younger players in need of development. He’d also likely take a much different approach defensively than Donatell or Zimmer have done in recent years, judging by his approach at Wisconsin.
Sean Desai, Seahawks Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Assistant
Desai is widely regarded as a top defensive mind in the NFL, but more uncertain as a leader with only one season as a defensive coordinator with the Bears in 2021. The Bears had a top passing defense that year, and ranked 6th in yards allowed, but still ranked 22nd in points allowed, in part because of the turnovers by the Bears’ offense that year.
Brian Flores, Steelers Defensive Assistant
Flores spent ten years under Bill Belichick in New England before becoming head coach in Miami. His firing there has led to lawsuits against the team and league which are on-going. While Flores served in many defensive coaching positions with the Patriots over many years, he’s never actually been a defensive coordinator, having gone from linebackers coach to head coach in Miami. But he’s seen as an experienced, strong defensive mind with close connection with his players that could excel in the right situation.
There are other candidates as well, including in-house candidate Mike Pettine, and various position coaches from other teams around the league. Tougher to get much of a read on those coaches, who don’t have a track record, but there could be some good possibilities among them.
Jim Leonhard Probably the Best Available Choice
While Vic Fangio is the most qualified choice that’s also available, I get the sense that he’ll pursue opportunities elsewhere, and wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in San Francisco. 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans is a top head coaching candidate, and it would not be the least bit surprising to see him hired away from the 49ers early this off-season. The 49ers, where Fangio coached before, would be an ideal spot for him to land with a top defensive roster and team already in place.
So, if Fangio is a less likely candidate to accept a Vikings defensive coordinator opening, should there be one, that leaves Jim Leonhard as probably the best available choice, at least among the younger up-and-coming variety, although it’s unclear what direction Leonhard will go after parting ways with the Badgers. He turned down the Packers DC job two years ago. He’s been cited as a possible defensive coordinator candidate for Alabama, but no clear links to any NFL team at this point. Leonhard played ten years in the NFL as a safety before getting into coaching.
Who would be the best replacement for Ed Donatell as defensive coordinator for the Vikings if they decide to move on from him?
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