Burrow's Youth Presents A Rebound Opportunity for the Vikings’ Defense

Photo credit: Sam Greene (The Inquirer)

Since Mike Zimmer took over as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, his defense has been consistently one of the most respected in the NFL. Last season aside, the Minnesota defense has routinely ranked inside the top 10 in both yards and points allowed, including a historic 2017 campaign in which the Vikings finished the season No. 1 in both categories.

A quick look back at Zimmer’s success leading the Vikings’ defense through the years shows that he’s been dominant against young, inexperienced quarterbacks — particularly quarterbacks in their first two seasons as a pro.

Oddly enough, 2020 presented the Vikings with almost exclusively seasoned veterans at the helm of opposing offenses. Of all the starting quarterbacks the Vikings matched up with last season, Mitchell Trubisky was the least experienced, and he was his fourth season in the NFL.

Minnesota gets a crack at a young, raw quarterback in Week 1. Second-year man Joe Burrow was the first-overall pick by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2020 NFL Draft. He showed promise as a rookie leading the Bengals’ offense before an injury cut his season short.

He will make just his 11th career start Sunday against Minnesota’s revamped defense. Several key starters who missed significant time last year (i.e., Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, and Eric Kendricks) are returning. Several more free-agency additions are set to fill important voids.

Sunday will mark the 19th time the Vikings face a starting quarterback in his first two seasons in the NFL since Zimmer took over in 2014. The Minnesota defense has been remarkably dominant in those games, and, more importantly, the Vikings are 13-5 in those games.

In the 18 games in which the Vikings have played against a quarterback who is in his first or second season as a pro, the Vikings have allowed an average of 16.39 points per game. This includes five instances in which the Vikings allowed 10 or fewer points: 2019 against the Giants (Daniel Jones), 2019 against the Lions (David Blough), 2017 against the Rams (Jared Goff), 2017 against the Packers (Brett Hundley), and 2017 against the Bears (Trubisky).

Additionally, in those 18 games, the Vikings have allowed an average passer rating of 72.4. Only twice in 18 games has a Zimmer-led Vikings defense allowed a rookie or sophomore quarterback to surpass a 100 passer rating in a game (Josh Allen in 2018 and Dak Prescott in 2016).

And just one of those quarterbacks threw for 300 yards: Derek Carr in a losing effort in 2015.

So what does this mean? Well, it means Zimmer’s elite defensive scheming shows its teeth against young, inexperienced quarterbacks. He’s able to use clever disguises and blitz packages to rattle opposing quarterbacks and quickly get them out of their rhythm. And more often than not, the Vikings’ offense doesn’t have to do much to earn a win.

This Sunday, Burrow and the Bengals present a similar opportunity for the Vikings. Aside from Minnesota’s bolstered personnel on the defensive side, Cincinnati’s offense features a young, talented quarterback protected by a rather weak offensive line.

After Minnesota’s defense fell short of expectations last year, Cincinnati is a dream matchup that will enable Zimmer and the defense to recapture what they lost from the 2015-19 seasons. During those years, Minnesota utilized its exceptional athletes and confusing disguises to stifle opposing offenses every week. And as evidenced by the statistics, this was especially true when facing young starting quarterbacks.

Many Vikings fans are counting on this defense to regain its old form. It was just two years ago that Zimmer’s advanced schematics and the Vikings’ aggressive defensive personnel were routinely creating chaos. Now reinvigorated with a plethora of free-agent additions, Zimmer will look to add Burrow to his long list of victims and open the season with a trademark shutdown performance.

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