The Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints have faced off four seasons in a row now. And as we’ve seen in the past, that particular matchup can carry a lot of weight into the offseason. For instance, the Minneapolis Miracle outcome led to numerous extensions and extra job security for Mike Zimmer. The 2019 Wild Card win led to an extension for Kirk Cousins. And last year’s 52-33 drubbing in Week 16 seems to be playing a role in Minnesota’s current revamp of the defensive line.
As Alvin Kamara ran up his touchdown count on the hapless Vikings run defense last Christmas Day, one could almost hear LeBron James rattling off numbers in the background: “Not two… not three… not four… not five!”
Six Kamara touchdowns later, the Vikings had allowed their most points (52) in almost 60 years, their most yards ever (583), and a shared NFL record for the most rushing touchdowns by one player. They were also eliminated from the playoffs.
This felt like a turning point for Zimmer, who almost resembled the Grinch that day thanks to the tinge of green faintly seen on his face, nauseous perhaps from the most inept defensive display in his tenure. After the game, he confessed it was the worst defense he’d ever had, and he began lamenting the loss of key defensive starters to injury. Zimmer knew how to cope with defeat, but losing in that manner didn’t register for a coach who’s had competitive defenses all seven years he’s been in Minnesota.
“I want to stop the run,” Zimmer said in January of 2014 when he was introduced as the Vikings head coach, a mantra he never stopped promoting.
It was the hallmark of his defense for years, propelling them to a 13-3 season in 2017, but things bottomed out last December. If anything can explain Minnesota’s decision to spend most of their free-agent capital on defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and double down on fixing the run defense, it’s their performance last Christmas.
Kamara repeatedly gashed a hole that should’ve been filled by Michael Pierce, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. But simply banking on Pierce’s return was ostensibly not good enough for the 2021 team. The Vikings’ reported two-year pact with Tomlinson, a nose tackle/3-technique hybrid from the New York Giants, gives them more than beef up the middle. This is a ribeye tomahawk chateaubriand. Pierce and Tomlinson will be instant run deterrents, a tandem that has the capability to turn teams one dimensional on first down. That’s what Zimmer surely is romanticizing, at least: The chance to regather some respect around the league as a run-stuffing force that typified the club when Linval Joseph was there from 2014-19. The Vikings tried to replace Joseph immediately when they signed Pierce. Without either of them, though, the difference was stark.
And nobody made them feel it more than Kamara. Fill-ins Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson were cast out of the way like tackling dummies. Stephen, who played the nose tackle spot and was required to be an above-average run-stopper to be effective, ended up finishing 72nd out of 137 defensive tackles last year in run defense grade. He was released Tuesday to free up cap space. Johnson, asked to play 3-technique, finished 132nd out of 137 against the run. He’s unlikely to return as a free agent.
In fact, it’s likely none of the four Vikings defensive linemen that started in Week 6 last year will be the with the team in 2021. One of them was Yannick Ngakoue, whose lackluster effort in stopping the run seemingly contributed to his trade during the bye week.
Zimmer could only stand for so long getting hit over the head with poor run defense on film. The Vikings finished 27th in yards allowed and gave up 100-plus yards 13 different times. Pierce might’ve been the panacea this year, but just to be sure, Tomlinson was brought on board to either join forces with Pierce to form a tour de force, or merely to provide insurance if circumstances remove Pierce from the lineup once again. When the two finally hit the field together, it’s possible — heck, maybe likely — that Zimmer channels Bill Yoast from Remember the Titans and drops the, “I don’t want them to gain another yard!” speech.
At some point, we’ll have to discuss what happens when teams choose to challenge Minnesota’s cornerbacks 40 times a game because they’re too spooked to run. (The answer is no — a receiver has never caught six touchdowns in a game.)
Minnesota reacted as strongly as possible to their run defense woes, even at the expense of solving other needs. They seem to have fixed them, all right, but let’s be real: That’s not the only leak on this defense. The Vikings better have a clear draft-and-development strategy so their 700 pounds of flesh at defensive tackle aren’t wasted.