The Defensive Line Needs To Step Up To Cover Linebacker Health Concerns

Photo credit: Kareem Elgazzar (USA TODAY Sports)

The Minnesota Vikings haven’t had an ideal start to the season, losing a penalty-filled disaster in overtime to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday. Thanks to that, plus the Cameron Dantzler trade rumors and Mike Zimmer’s displeasure with Kirk Cousins, the last few days have been a whirlwind.

The latest development in the Minnesota Vikings saga is the injury report. Ahead of the Week 2 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, ESPN’s Courtney Cronin broke the news that linebacker Eric Kendricks would not practice on Thursday.

This is a rough blow for the Vikings, who are decimated by injuries at the linebacker position. Anthony Barr returned to practice last Wednesday before sitting out again. Nick Vigil seemed to get banged up against the Bengals and has been limited.

Assuming the worst, if Barr and Kendricks can’t go on Sunday, Blake Lynch and Troy Dye will see the field for Minnesota, tasked with trying to stop Chase Edmonds and Kyler Murray. This was going to be a tall task before the injuries. Now, the Vikings are going to need their defensive line to step up.

From the outset, it looks like the Vikings’ decision to shore up their defensive line with three shiny new tackles was superfluous because Bengals running back Joe Mixon now leads the league in rushing yards. However, it wasn’t the Vikings’ interior that struggled against the run; it was the edge rushers. According to Pro Football Focus, Mixon rushed for 127 yards on 29 attempts, with 78 of those yards and a touchdown coming in the direction of either defensive end. In comparison, rushes in the direction of the interior defensive line yielded 49 yards on 15 attempts.

D.J. Wonnum and Danielle Hunter are Minnesota’s starting defensive ends. Wonnum struggled to defend the run, putting up a PFF grade of 41.3, including a missed tackle. In his first game back from a season-ending neck injury last year, Hunter was in the middle of the pack, grading at 61.1 against the run.

Over his career, Hunter has a run defense grade in the high 70s. He probably had rust to knock off, but the Vikings can’t keep giving up big numbers around the tackles. On the other hand, Stephen Weatherly, who lost the position battle against Wonnum, led the Vikings in run defense with a grade of 75.2.

The defensive line also needs to generate more pressure. They finished the day with an impressive five sacks but just 11 pressures on Joe Burrow’s 33 dropbacks. Around the league, the five sacks ranked second behind the Carolina Panthers. The Arizona Cardinals tied for first.

It’s important to note that two of those five sacks came on blitzes (from Harrison Smith and Nick Vigil). The low pressure rate suggests that those sack numbers are not sustainable.

The best performance from the interior belonged to Michael Pierce. The Juggernaut, as he calls himself, put up a career performance in his first game in purple. He had two sacks and two pressures. More impressively, Pierce recorded a Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) of 15.4, good for 10th in the league among all defensive linemen.

However, the rest of the defensive line wasn’t as efficient. Dalvin Tomlinson, who was supposed to be the primary interior pass rusher, was invisible, and the second-highest PRP belonged to Danielle Hunter. However, he ranked exactly 10 points lower than Pierce at 5.4.

The Vikings’ defensive line hasn’t done a great job of getting to the passer against a unit that hasn’t been impressive and barely made any worthwhile changes in the offseason. Even though they signed Sheldon Richardson to antagonize quarterbacks, he recorded just one pressure on 15 pass-rushing snaps.

This week, the Vikings head to the desert to play a team whose guards both ranked in the top 10 for the highest pass-block win rate at their position. The Cardinals’ offensive line had a solid game against a weak Tennessee Titans front (except for Rodney Hudson, who recorded a PFF grade of 28.5). They also had 126 rushing yards, with an even chunk coming from each side.

Arizona will be a tougher test for the Vikings’ defense as a whole but especially a front seven that may be depleted if Barr and Kendricks aren’t able to play. The defensive line will have to do a better job of sealing the edges and containing the run to make up for their absence.

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