The Minnesota Vikings had one of the most miserable defenses in the NFL last year. They ranked among the league’s worst in just about every defensive category possible, from points scored to yards allowed. In response, this offseason the Vikings’ front office added 16 defensive players in the draft and free agency.
They upgraded at arguably nine positions on defense while gaining valuable depth — one of their biggest weaknesses last season. Despite all these upgrades, one persistent concern is the lack of a proven defensive end on the opposite side of All-Pro Danielle Hunter.
Minnesota notched a franchise-low 23 sacks last year. Although they get Hunter back from injury and upgraded their interior defensive line, there was concern that the Vikings still didn’t have enough pass rush. They also inked Sheldon Richardson, whose strength is pass rush, to a one-year deal to make up for this.
There is a contingent of the fanbase that thinks this still isn’t enough, mostly due to the lack of impact players on the edge. But there are ways to get a substantial pass rush from the players on the roster. Currently, their starting defensive line looks like this: Weatherly – Pierce – Tomlinson – Hunter.
Most of this defensive line is formidable: Hunter was an All-Pro in his last two seasons, tallying 14.5 sacks in both years. Michael Pierce is one of the better nose tackles in the league, averaging a PFF career grade of 81.2. Dalvin Tomlinson was the best interior defensive lineman to hit free agency this year, and he should give Minnesota the interior penetration they haven’t had in years.
The only real concern on this defensive line is Stephen Weatherly. The former seventh-round pick and the fifth-year veteran didn’t record a sack and had just 12 pressures for the Carolina Panthers last year. Weatherly played significant snaps in Minnesota in two seasons and averaged 28 pressures and three sacks.
It should be noted that he was rotated in rather than being a full-time starter. Last season, the Vikings tried to convert Ifeadi Odenigbo into a starter after he was a solid rotational piece, but it didn’t work out.
Outside of Weatherly, the Vikings have second-year player D.J. Wonnum, rookies Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson, and Jayln Holmes, a former fourth-round pick who has minimal production in the NFL. Safe to say, none of these players are expected to be starters next year.
In the past, especially during the Mike Zimmer era, the Vikings have always had an impactful pass rush built off a duo of solid defensive ends and a stable in the rotation behind them. They always had an above-average run-stuffer in the interior but no true penetration.
“All the time I hear, ‘Oh, they need a penetrating 3-technique, they need a penetrating 3-technique,’” co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “Well, when we had the No. 1 defense in the league, we didn’t have a penetrating [DT]. We don’t ask our 3-techniques to do that.”
Now the Vikings have a penetrating defensive tackle, perhaps even two of them. If they don’t sign a starting-caliber defensive end in free agency this summer, don’t fret. There are still other ways to generate pass rush.
First, it should be noted that, while Michael Pierce is an elite run stuffer, he does not offer much in terms of pass rush. However, Zimmer usually only asks his nose tackles to play approximately 60% of snaps. This should continue with Pierce.
For the Vikings to generate the most pass rush with their current personnel, especially on downs where they expect the opposing offenses to pass the ball, they could move Dalvin Tomlinson to nose tackle and plug in Sheldon Richardson at defensive tackle. Richardson had 43 pressures and six sacks last year.
While Tomlinson is an effective pass rusher from the defensive tackle spot, he thrived at getting to the quarterback from the nose tackle alignment. Tomlinson had the second-highest pass-rush win rate in the NFL from the nose (14.5%) last year. The New York Giants utilized what is referred to as the 3-4 Tite formation with Tomlinson, Dexter Lawrence, and Leonard Williams. With this formation, the Giants were effectively able to get to the passer.
Although the Vikings don’t run 3-4 fronts, they could add this look to their personnel, with the defensive line looking like this: Tomlinson – Pierce – Richardson – Hunter.
The Los Angeles Rams also mimicked this approach. The Tite Front lets the Vikings put their best four defensive linemen on the field, three of whom can rush the passer more effectively than that second defensive end.
And finally, even without a big name at the other defensive end spot, the Vikings could rely on double teams and chips to let the young role players like Patrick Jones II and D.J. Wonnum develop. Think about it: Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson make up 650 lbs. on the interior. Danielle Hunter is a blue-chip pass rusher. Sometimes, in double a gap looks, Anthony Barr rushes the passer, commanding one offensive lineman’s attention.
The other defensive end will have the easiest matchup on the field. It’s up to Mike Zimmer to take advantage of that.