Minnesota's Defensive Success Hinges On Cameron Dantzler's Improvement

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings experienced a complete revamp of their cornerback room this offseason, signing Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander, trading Mike Hughes to the Kansas City Chiefs, and, most recently, bringing in Bashaud Breeland for a visit. Their cornerback room currently looks like this:

*Gladney is facing suspension due to an assault incident in Texas this summer, so his availability is up in the air.

For Minnesota’s defense to thrive, Dantzler must build on his late-season rise. On paper, Minnesota has one of the better front sevens in the league, with a defensive line of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Danielle Hunter, plus Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks running the linebacking crew. There should be minimal worry about that. But even with the new additions, the secondary remains a big question mark, unless someone steps up.

Patrick Peterson is coming off a bit of a down year where he allowed 677 yards and a 100.8 passer rating. This can be partially attributed to the Arizona Cardinals’ defense playing the most man coverage in the NFL last year. Peterson no longer has the juice to keep up with players like Terry McLaurin. However, the signing was a boost to the Vikings cornerback room because Peterson provides strong veteran leadership and the ability to be a higher-end player covering the opposing team’s second-best wide receiver.

The Vikings’ defense has focused on zone coverage the last two seasons, playing Cover 2 Zone on 22.5% of pass plays, third-most in the NFL. Further, they finished second in 2019 at 27.4% and fifth in 2018 at 20.6%. This is primarily due to not having a lockdown No. 1 corner on the roster like they had with Xavier Rhodes before his decline.

But maybe the next alpha corner is already on their roster. Enter: Cameron Dantzler.

As all rookie corners do, Dantzler had a very up-and-down season last year. After an uber-impressive training camp, Dantzler earned a starting spot over the first-round pick Jeff Gladney. He played in five of the first eight games, allowing a 72.5% completion rate, 347 yards, a 123.7 quarterback rating, and four touchdowns.

Then, in Week 8 at Lambeau Field, Dantzler was hit near his neck in a nasty collision. He couldn’t even move, and many were terrified his football career had come to an early end. After battling back from what was listed as a concussion, Dantzler returned a new player.

“His demeanor and everything when he’s out there on the field is very calm,” Anthony Harris noted. “He’s relaxed and poised. I think that has just come with his experience of being on the field and being in some of those positions he’s been put in as of late.”

He played six more games in 2020, and his allowed completion percentage dropped to 51.6%, he gave up 178 yards and no touchdowns. Dantzler also recorded three turnovers (two interceptions and one forced fumble and recovery) and a 61.6 quarterback rating in this span.

After his rookie season, PFF had this to say about him:

“Dantzler fell to the third round of the draft a year ago despite having the first-round tape because he was extremely lightweight and struggled to run well when he added weight during the process. He had ups and downs as a rookie but put up multiple single-game PFF grades above 90.0 and forced his way into the starting lineup.“

There is a possibility that Mike Zimmer looks to switch back to a man-heavy scheme with better personnel, considering the team’s offseason targets. The Vikings have been interested in two corners good in the press-man scheme with Shaquill Griffin and Bashaud Breeland, for example.

Dantzler was a better corner in man coverage than in zone coverage last year. He had a 67.2 PFF coverage grade in man and a 62.3 PFF coverage grade in zone. Further, Dantzler allowed a 39.6 passer rating in man versus a 118.2 passer rating in zone.

It is important to note, however, that the Vikings ran man coverage for 21.9% of Dantzler’s snaps while they ran zone coverage for 78.2% of snaps. But if Zimmer wants to go back to press-man, the defense’s success is highly dependent on the play of Cameron Dantzler and whether or not he can take another step forward this season.

Dantzler had some very promising man-coverage reps later in the season against some of the better wide receivers in the league. Below is a rep versus Jacksonville Jaguars receiver D.J. Chark. Dantzler is sticky in coverage, matching with Chark step for step and using his hands to knock the ball away.

This one is against Robby Anderson of the Carolina Panthers. Dantzler uses his athleticism to run stride for stride with Anderson and knock the ball away.

He shows sticky coverage on his first career interception and uses his strength to rip the ball away from Jacksonville tight end Eric Saubert.

Dantzler will be called on for heavier duty this season. And because the Vikings need more from their revamped coverage unit as a whole, their defensive success will depend a lot on the play of their top cornerback, Cameron Dantzler.

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