Minnesota's New-Look Defense Will Be Tested Immediately This Year

Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara (USA TODAY Sports)

There were plenty of reasons why last year was a disappointment for the Minnesota Vikings, but their biggest letdown was on defense. A perennial top-10 unit under Mike Zimmer, the Vikings slumped to 27th in yards allowed and 29th in points allowed last season.

After a free-agent spending spree this offseason, Minnesota’s defense is expected to improve. But one look at their 2021 schedule will tell you that it has to be ready to go in Week 1.

The first test will come in the season opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that will most likely finish at the bottom of the AFC North but has some promising pieces. Joe Burrow had a strong rookie season before a season-ending knee injury, and the addition of Ja’Marr Chase gives him a dangerous weapon in the passing game.

While Joe Mixon is a dynamic threat in the backfield, Minnesota’s biggest test will come against Cincinnati’s offensive line. The Bengals signed old friend Riley Reiff in free agency but didn’t do much to upgrade a unit that ranked 30th in Pro Football Focus’ final offensive line rankings.

That gives Minnesota’s defensive line a chance to prove itself. With Danielle Hunter projected to return from injury and a pair of new starters on the interior, the Vikings will need to find a way to get to Burrow.

When Burrow played behind a clean pocket last season, he produced a passer rating of 102.5, but that number dropped to 52.3 when pressured. Even though Minnesota’s young secondary will have more experience, they’ll have a better time containing Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins if they can get pressure up front.

The Vikings’ secondary will also have its hands full with a Week 2 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals. While there are flaws with Kliff Kingsbury’s air-raid system, Arizona’s offense finished sixth in total yards but just 13th in total points.

The biggest matchup will be Patrick Peterson against DeAndre Hopkins, but there will be issues for the rest of the secondary. With Christian Kirk, second-round pick Rondale Moore, and A.J. Green on the field, the improvement of second-year cornerback Cameron Dantzler and the returning Mackensie Alexander will be key to get a victory in the desert.

That brings Minnesota’s Week 3 matchup with the Seattle Seahawks into focus. Seattle has had an identity crisis on offense, resisting the urge to let Russell Willson cook and opting to ram Chris Carson between the tackles. While the Seahawks may choose to utilize D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in the passing game, the decision to retain Carson this offseason could signal there won’t be a major shift in philosophy.

This is a problem for the Vikings’ run defense, which was last seen getting humiliated by Alvin Kamara. With a Christmas massacre fresh in their memory, the Vikings signed Dalvin Tomlinson to pair with Michael Pierce. The move gives the Vikings 650 lbs. to stop the run, but they will still need to make a leap from the 4.9 yards per attempt they allowed last season.

If the Vikings survive the Seahawks, they’ll have to deal with the Cleveland Browns. Kevin Stefanski was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator for only a year, but he had been with the organization since 2006 and spent several seasons working against Mike Zimmer’s defense in practice.

With several principles that are borrowed from Gary Kubiak’s scheme, Stefanski would know the best way to utilize a running game that ranked third in rushing offense last season. Like in their matchup with the Seahawks, the Vikings will have to deal with an early-down hammer in Nick Chubb. They’ll also have to stop Kareem Hunt, who offers additional value in the passing game.

Together, the beginning of the season offers a four-game stretch that will tell us a lot about the Vikings’ defense. The good news is that they’ll have more time to prepare than they did last season, where they integrated five new starters without a training camp or preseason.

While the Vikings are not reporting to voluntary OTAs, they should have a normal offseason with a three-game preseason schedule this summer. That will give their newcomers time to play together and be ready for kickoff.

That will be necessary against four teams that could provide problems against a new-look defense. If the Vikings aren’t ready, they could fall into the same hole that doomed their 2020 season before the bye week.

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