Vikings

The Defense Hit Rock Bottom. Now What?

Photo Credit: Chuck Cook (USA TODAY Sports)

For those who witnessed the Minnesota Vikings’ thorough dismantling at the hands of the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Day, this is what rock bottom looks like.

If you were paying attention, you knew in advance it probably wasn’t going to be pretty when the depleted Vikings’ defense squared off with a playoff-bound Saints team on a short week. Furthermore, it was evident that the Saints would not mistakenly overlook their nemesis from the north – not after the Vikings marched out of New Orleans with an overtime playoff win last winter.

The ease with which the Vikings defense was repeatedly gashed in the Big Easy took things to a new low, however. It was a record-setting performance. In a bad way.

The 52 points the Vikings allowed tied for the second-most in the 60-year history of the Vikings’ franchise. The 583 yards allowed set a new franchise record. And Alvin Kamara matched an NFL record (and single-handedly won fantasy football championships) with six rushing touchdowns. Keep in mind that, were it not for an out-of-nowhere first-half interception by Harrison Hand at the Vikings’ 8-yard line, the numbers could have been worse.

Drew Brees was playing at far less than 100% but faced little pressure from the Vikings’ pass rush. And reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year Michael Thomas was sidelined once again. Imagine the carnage if the Saints had been at full strength.

It truly was one of the worst defensive performances in team history. Indeed, it might have been the worst.

Mike Zimmer met with the media via Zoom following the game and looked shell-shocked, candidly confirming what we all knew: “This is a bad defense – worst one I’ve ever had.”

Zimmer pointed to the front seven getting manhandled, defensive backs losing coverage on receivers and the tackling. Oh, such horrendous tackling! Things just fell apart across the board. Zimmer assured the media throng he didn’t want to make excuses, but then noted the stark contrast between the defensive personnel that took the field last year in their playoff win against the Saints and the cast of characters that lined up defensively on Friday. It was night and day.

It’s honestly something of a Christmas miracle the Vikings made it as far as they did this season given the roster hits their defense took. Gone were Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce didn’t play a single down. Anthony Barr lasted one game. The cornerbacks were in constant flux. And in recent weeks, the defense hemorrhaged linebackers, with the loss of Eric Kendricks for several games being the final straw.

To be fair, there probably aren’t too many coaches walking the planet who would have been able to hold this defense together long enough to win six games.

Zimmer just ran out of duct tape.

So now what? What happens when the defense hits rock bottom? The Week 17 game against the Detroit Lions has no meaning beyond determining how high both teams will draft. What matters is what happens after that game ends.

Rock bottom is a point where change is required. Admitting there’s a serious problem is the first step, and Zimmer seemed to indicate that in his post-game assessment. There are three specific areas of change worthy of considering: coaching, free agency/decisions on veteran players and draft plans.

COACHING

The question of whether Zimmer will be retained following this season is again the subject of some debate. For a coach whose specialty is defense, to have a defense this awful appropriately raises red flags. However, if Zimmer was going to be fired, it probably would have already happened – for instance, in the aftermath of the loss to the then-winless Atlanta Falcons as the Vikings headed into their bye week. When that didn’t happen, you knew Zimmer had more time.

Roster turnover and injuries that short-handed the defense also must be considered. Yeah, it feels like an excuse, but it’s a valid one.

If there’s going to be a fall guy or fall guys on the coaching staff, one would think you’d have to look beyond Zimmer. The chances of his son, Adam Zimmer, being relieved of his duties as co-defensive coordinator seem remote. They’re likely a package deal. But what about fellow co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson or senior defensive assistant Dom Capers? What has Capers, specifically, added?

It’s hard to believe the Vikings coaching staff will stand pat following this season.

FREE AGENCY AND ROSTER DECISIONS

Is the cavalry really coming to save the day?

Can the answer be as simple as Hunter, Pierce, Kendricks and Barr returning in 2021 to infuse star power to the overmatched defense? Maybe.

On the other hand, how sure is anyone that Hunter will play in 2021? Neck injuries, the last anyone checked, are tricky when professional football is your occupation. And if he does return, will it be the same All-Pro Hunter the Vikings are accustomed to seeing? Will a year away from the game compound his injury issues and leave him something less than the player he was before? Similarly, can the Vikings count on Pierce after a year of not playing? And will Barr even be a member of the Vikings in 2021? Zimmer mentioned Barr as one of the players he looked forward to getting back, but how realistic is that? Barr’s hefty contract indicates he could be a salary-cap casualty following his lost 2020 season.

The Vikings aren’t in great shape with their salary cap over the next few seasons, barring a significant change such as moving on from Cousins. Thus, any free agency moves they seek in an effort to buttress the defensive side of the ball will need to be done on the cheap. They’ll be like the couple on your favorite HGTV show looking to do millions of dollars’ worth of improvements on a shoestring budget.

DRAFT PLANS

As the Vikings learn of their draft position following the season finale against the Lions and mock draft season begins in earnest, the unprecedented struggles on defense must be factored in. It’s gotten to the point that draft priorities merit adjusting in the war room out at their Eagan headquarters.

It sure would be enticing if one of those top quarterbacks slid out of the top 10 and fell in the Vikings’ laps. But how likely is that? Sorry, Vikings fans, but you might have to wait on that young franchise quarterback yet again. Moreover, you know that some draft capital will need to be spent on the offensive line, especially at a guard position that’s grading out lower than the Delta House on a weekly basis.

Current mock drafts indicate most of the top defensive players will still be on the board midway through the first round, where the Vikings will be selecting, barring a trade. Vikings fans pining for a quarterback or “the best offensive lineman available” might need to brace themselves for picks focused on the defensive side of the ball for the majority of Rick Spielman’s draft picks in the spring.

Unfortunately, rock bottom is sometimes where things need to end up before a problem is confirmed and before significant change can be realized.

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