Vikings

Can Danielle Hunter Save This Defense?

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

Despite heavy recasting over the offseason, Minnesota Vikings fans are no strangers to the same show that the defense has been putting on for the past two weeks. Last season, Minnesota’s defense ranked 29th in points, 27th in yards, 25th in passing yards, and 27th in rushing yards allowed. Granted, the Vikings experienced some adversity last year — like every other team in the NFL — and saw a few starters miss games due to injury and/or sitting out because of the pandemic.

No player’s absence was felt last season more than defensive end Danielle Hunter. Coming off consecutive seasons with 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019, Hunter is the definition of a defensive game wrecker. NFL defenses are begging for an effective pass rush without neglecting their coverage by sending additional defenders on the blitz. Hunter singlehandedly provides Mike Zimmer and the Vikings with exactly that.

Even though the Vikings came close to replicating Hunter’s production after trading a second-round pick for Yannick Ngakoue and his five sacks through six games in purple, the defense was a nightmare from Week 1’s opening kickoff.

With Hunter, Eric Kendricks, and Michael Pierce back this season — alongside several veteran free-agent additions — the Vikings defense looks almost identical to the unit that was one of the league’s worst last season. Through two games, they rank 27th in points, 28th in yards, 26th in passing yards, and 21st in rushing yards allowed.

No matter how you want to slice it, this defense has been getting carved up for over a year now.

What’s puzzling about the early-season showing out of the Vikings’ defense is that Hunter’s return has provided little to no impact on the defense as a whole. At 26 years old and fresh off a new contact restructure over the summer, Hunter is in the prime of his career. And he has reverted to his usual game-wrecker self, currently ranking second in the NFL with four sacks through two weeks.

So why is Minnesota’s defense currently near the bottom of every team statistic?

In Week 2’s Heartbreaker in the Desert, Vol. II, Hunter recorded three sacks, generated seven pressures, and registered four hurries (per Pro Football Focus). Again, that level of production out of an individual pass rusher is rare throughout the NFL.

Despite Hunter’s heroics, Minnesota’s defense surrendered 34 points and 474 total yards in the loss.

Circling back to Christmas evening 2020, head coach Mike Zimmer was asked how the defense gets better after giving up 52 points and 583 yards to the New Orleans Saints.

Welp.

Hunter and Pierce are back and have combined for six sacks through two weeks. And yet here we are once again, dealing with a Vikings defense that can’t stop a nosebleed.

The excuses are running thin for Zimmer and this defense — especially with Hunter currently operating as one of the league’s premier pass rushers. With Russell Wilson, D.K. Metcalf, and Tyler Lockett coming to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, the Vikings desperately need Hunter to continue his game-wrecking ways.

The only question is, will the rest of the defense be able to do their jobs while Hunter continues to go above and beyond?

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