If Pass Rush Doesn’t Improve, This Will be Zimmer’s First Bad Defense

Photo credit: Jesse Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer confidently addressed any concerns about Minnesota’s defense regressing prior to the Week 1 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. “I’ve never had a bad defense,” he asserted.

That quote is not aging well so far, of course. Minnesota’s defense was absolutely shredded by Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday in a 43-34 loss. Green Bay totaled 522 yards of offense and scored 41 effortless points against the Vikings, who had no answers throughout the game.

That display was a surprise to those who have gotten used to Zimmer’s defensive success in Minnesota. When he says he’s never had a bad defense, his track record as the Vikings head coach backs it up. They have not ranked outside the Top 14 in either points allowed or yards allowed since he took over in 2014. So Zimmer’s “I’ve never had a bad defense” statement is true, at least as it pertains to his tenure in Minnesota.

However, the Vikings’ defensive performance on Sunday might render that statement incorrect. Granted, only one week of the 2020 NFL season has been played, but they are dead last in both yards and points allowed.

Most of the attention has been given to Minnesota’s young, inexperienced secondary. Rookie third-round pick Cameron Dantzler played the most snaps of any cornerback on the team, while third-year players Mike Hughes (a former first-round pick) and Holton Hill played most of the defensive snaps. The trio was cooked all game long by the timing and precision of the Packers offense.

The performance isn’t surprising. Even with Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander on the roster in 2019, the cornerback group showed glimpses of this. Now, with so much turnover at the position, maintaining Minnesota’s stellar cornerback play from the past few years is just an impossible ask.

But don’t overlook Minnesota’s lack of a pass rush against the Packers. The Vikings just made a trade to acquire Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville and immediately signed him to a one-year, $12 million contract. In his first appearance in purple and gold, Ngakoue was almost nowhere to be found.

Additionally, Ifeadi Odenigbo had almost no impact on the game at the other side of the defensive line. The fourth-year man recorded seven sacks last season in a rotational role behind Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen.

Hunter is on injured reserve due to a reported neck injury, and Griffen signed with Dallas. That’s two elite pass rushers no longer wreaking havoc for opposing quarterbacks. In hindsight, it was certainly naive to dismiss the idea that Minnesota’s pass rush would see a significant drop off.

Rodgers was pressured just four times on Sunday, two of which came from nose tackle Shamar Stephen, who isn’t exactly breaking sack records. Additionally, per Pro Football Focus, three of the pressures were charged to Rodgers. In other words, he was only pressured one time as a result of a Vikings rusher beating an offensive lineman.

Minnesota’s defense has been so successful in recent years in large part because they’ve been able to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. The duo of Hunter and Griffen off the edge was monumental last season in taking pressure off the deteriorating cornerback group. Skim over the playoff win at New Orleans and it’s easy to see how much a couple of talented pass rushers can help a depleted secondary.

Unfortunately, they have lost that edge (pun intended). Hunter’s injury and Griffen’s departure have left enormous holes to fill at defensive end, and it’s irresponsible to expect Ngakoue and Odenigbo to replace that production. The result is the opposing quarterback getting more time to survey the defense and take advantage of the inexperienced cornerbacks.

However, there’s still reason for optimism. Zimmer’s track record suggests he’ll figure out a way to keep the Vikings defense competitive. And when Zimmer’s defense has laid an egg like this, similar to the 2018 game against the Los Angeles Rams, it has generally rebounded with a strong outing the following week.

There may not be a better quarterback in the league to rebound against than Philip Rivers, who is on the slate Sept. 20 as Minnesota travels to Indianapolis to take on the Colts. Rivers was part of the Los Angeles Chargers offense that turned the ball over seven times last year in a Week 15 loss against Minnesota.

However, Indianapolis boasts one of the strongest offensive line units in football. Somehow, some way, Minnesota needs to get pressure on the quarterback.

Maybe it’s just a matter of Odenigbo, Ngakoue and Minnesota’s defensive line performing better. Maybe it’s a matter of Zimmer getting a little more creative with blitzes. Perhaps it’s a little of both.

Either way, Minnesota’s youthful cornerback group needs some help. And if those young cornerbacks don’t get that help from the pass rushers, it will be a long season.

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