The Vikings had their slim hopes of a playoff appearance dashed on Christmas after suffering a 52-33 loss at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. The Saints finished with 264 yards on the ground and Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara had a career day, rushing for 155 yards on 22 carries and scoring six times — the first time a player has scored six touchdowns since the NFL-AFL merger.
The Saints seemed to take advantage of the Vikings’ poor run defense from the very first drive. Kamara scampered for a 40-yard touchdown, running to the second level untouched and evading Anthony Harris‘ desperation tackle. The Saints ended the game with 5.9 yards per carry and seemed to breeze into gaping holes with ease. It got so bad that Fox color commentator and Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman said, “The Vikings defense is just… not good.”
This is a trend that has persisted all year. They rank as the 23rd rush defense, allowing 125.6 rushing yards per game to their opposition, a start contrast for Mike Zimmer, whose previous defenses were known to stop the run and force teams to become one-dimensional.
Despite the poor showing in 2020, Vikings fans shouldn’t have any cause for concern in 2021.
Maturation from the corners
To make up for these losses to long-time veterans, they spent significant draft capital at the cornerback position, drafting Jeff Gladney in the first round, Cameron Dantzler in the third round and Harrison Hand in the fifth round. Despite the talent of these players, they were going to have an especially rough transition to the NFL with a condensed offseason and no preseason.
Because they had such a young secondary, the Vikings defense played Harrison Smith much deeper and used him more in coverage to help out the rookie corners. Therefore, he couldn’t regularly play at the line of scrimmage where he is most disruptive when playing the run.
Through the course of the season, we have seen major improvement from the Vikings’ young corners. Dantzler was the one of the highest-graded corners in December via PFF after suffering a nasty concussion against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. From Weeks 13-16, he ranked No. 2 out of all cornerbacks in football. Not just rookies; all cornerbacks.
Both Gladney and Danzler have a full offseason to mature and improve their game further, allowing Smith to play his more natural role closer to the line of scrimmage.
Return from injury
Anyone who follows this team will know that the defense suffered key injuries to high-level contributing veterans who were supposed to make the younger players’ transition to the NFL much easier.
Training camp started poorly for the Vikings when they lost two-time Pro-Bowler Danielle Hunter for the season. What the team believed to be a “tweak” turned out to be a herniated disc in his neck. With Hunter gone for the season, the Vikings didn’t just lose an explosive pass rusher, they also lost a player who out graded at 76.8 last season vs. the run. Instead of Hunter, the Vikings have relied on Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jalyn Holmes to fill his role, both of whom have graded out as 51.8 and 56.4, respectively, vs. the run.
Then they lost Anthony Barr for the season after he tore his pectoral muscle in their Week 2 game against the Indianapolis Colts. His injury left a hole in the defense. Despite the amount of criticism he gets, Barr plays an integral role in the Vikings’ defense as the player with the “green dot” who receives and conveys Zimmer’s play calls.
The injury to Barr forced Eric Wilson to take his place. Before this year Wilson was used as a coverage linebacker. While he has impressed with his three interceptions and forced fumble on a defense that has struggled to take the ball away, Wilson has proved to be somewhat of a liability when facing the run. Wilson has missed 18 tackles this season and has posted a run defense grade of 37.3, a significant drop-off from Barr’s 62.8 grade vs. the run last season.
They also lost the heart of their defense in the most Vikings way possible. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks injured his calf in warmups before the Jacksonville Jaguars game. It was the most important loss the defense suffered: Kendricks led the team in tackles and was one of their best coverage linebackers. He was always around the ball in the middle of the action, and his loss forced the Vikings to rely on rookie fourth-round pick Troy Dye and veteran pickup Todd David to fill his role.
Despite their best effort, Davis and Dye were both below-average filling in for Kendricks. They both suffered injuries against the Chicago Bears, forcing the Vikings to start rookie UDFA Blake Lynch and fourth-year UDFA Hardy Nickerson Jr. against the Saints. Both Nickerson and Lynch had a rough outing against Kamara, often allowing him to reach the second level.
The free-agent pickup
Before this year the Vikings were very successful defending the run, in large part due to one very large man. Standing at 6’4” and weighing 329 pounds, Linval Joseph was one of the first free-agent signings Zimmer made, bringing the nose tackle to Minnesota to stop the run. In football, you often hear the cliche of a player’s impact going beyond the box score. Joseph was a prime example of this. While there would be games where he wouldn’t record a single tackle, he would eat up the blocks ahead of him, not allowing the guards and center to get to the second level and allowing Kendricks and Barr to run free into the hole.
Due to his advanced age and diminishing production level, coupled with his contract which had a majority of non-guaranteed money, the Vikings made the difficult decision to part ways with Joseph.
They brought in Michael Pierce, a 345-pound nose tackle from the Baltimore Ravens, to fill the void, signing him to a 3-year, $27 million deal. Things didn’t work out according to plan, though. Pierce decided to opt-out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19, and this, coupled with Hunter being out for the season, forced the Vikings to put together a makeshift line that consisted of a bunch of younger players or rotational pieces who got a significant amount of run as starters.
Next year we should see growth in the young players who were forced into action this season. Along with the healthy return of key veterans and last season’s big acquisition, they will hopefully form a defense that is much more sound when facing the run.