The sunny outlook for the Minnesota Vikings’ defense had a cloud cast over it Monday when Ian Rapoport reported that nose tackle Michael Pierce injured his calf while training. A story from the Star Tribune later indicated that Pierce could miss two weeks of training camp, which would almost certainly keep him out of the first preseason game on Aug. 14.
The Vikings and their fans have to be getting antsy to see a player who may be one of the five most important pieces to the defense thanks to his imposing size. It’s now been over 18 months since Pierce played football after sitting out last year due to COVID concerns, and now he may not suit up until the regular season at the earliest.
A minor calf injury may not raise red flags for many players, but concerns over Pierce are valid. Not only because leg injuries are troublesome for big linemen. Or that he dealt with lower-body issues in the 2019 season. Or that Danielle Hunter‘s allegedly minor injury turned into season-ending surgery last year. Beyond that, there is no one else like Pierce on the Vikings’ defense. Replacing a skilled 340 lb. man who is relatively athletic for his size is not a matter of plumbing the depths of free agency or elevating players from the bottom of the roster. If it was, the Vikings would have done it more effectively last year. Instead, they were left rudderless on their defensive line with an ill-suited rotation that struggled mightily to stop the run.
Shamar Stephen, Armon Watts, and Jaleel Johnson — three former Day 3 picks with below-average pass-rushing tools — were overmatched throughout last season as opponents recorded the sixth-most rushing yards in the league. If fact, opponents were almost as effective on the ground as the Vikings’ offense with its run-first offensive mindset and Dalvin Cook carrying the ball. Minnesota recorded 2,283 ground yards and 20 touchdowns last year compared to adversaries’ 2,151 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Head coach Mike Zimmer’s determination to maintain the run defense was demonstrated by signing Pierce as an apples-to-apples replacement for Linval Joseph, who left in free agency after the 2019 season. Zimmer and the front office doubled down this offseason, signing another run-stopping specialist, Dalvin Tomlinson, who has graded out as a top-30 run-stopper all four years of his career, per Pro Football Focus.
With Tomlinson in tow, the Vikings are unquestionably better equipped to handle a lengthy absence from Pierce. But that doesn’t mean they can replace him.
The Pierce-Tomlinson tandem was ostensibly designed to repel teams from even considering run plays between the tackles. Minnesota was counting on their nearly 700 lbs. of girth to keep opponents one dimensional, even if it meant sacrificing some pass-rushing prowess in the process. Without Pierce, the Vikings can’t fulfill that vision.
And a unique vision it is. As defensive lines across the league trend smaller and faster, the Vikings went bigger. Ironically, it’s the type of defensive line that would give Minnesota’s offensive line fits and probably will during training camp. Some may question the strategy of lowering pressure potential in the name of run-stuffing, but at minimum, the Vikings’ plan will give opponents a challenging puzzle to solve.
That is, if Minnesota gets Pierce and Tomlinson on the field.
If Pierce misses time, Sheldon Richardson will be a suitable fill-in with a near-decade-long track record of getting after quarterbacks. That’s a nice ace in the hole the Vikings found in free agency in mid-June — and Richardson may produce more pressure than Pierce even if he’s recently struggled against the run. But Minnesota assembled the two big bodies for a reason: to make sure last year’s regression doesn’t become a trend.
Zimmer has wanted a big body over the center every year of his head coaching career. Joseph was the team’s foundational nose tackle from 2014-19, and Pierce’s immediate acquisition shows Zimmer’s desperation to have that type of player. In Joseph’s six years on the roster, opponents never averaged better than 4.3 yards per carry in a season. Minnesota was second-best in the league at stopping third-and-short running plays, behind only the Seattle Seahawks.
The Vikings see Pierce as being on a Joseph-like trajectory: in his prime at age 28 and ready to develop his game even further under defensive line guru Andre Patterson.
“Before I even signed here, coach [Patterson] told me how he progressed Linval,” Pierce said in April, “and he’s been a great run-stopper, but he also got to the passer. We’ve got Jared Goff in this division, we’ve got Aaron Rodgers in this division – it’s imperative that you get to the passer. So bringing Dalvin [Tomlinson] in, he’s done a great job as a nose guard of getting to the passer. That’s something that I always desperately wanted to improve. I think my power is great and I have quickness and all that stuff, but for me, it’s putting those pieces together and progressing my game forward.”
Pierce getting to the passer and being a run-stopping force is a tantalizing thought. Vikings fans won’t be able to salivate just yet, though. Pierce will start training camp on the shelf, and Zimmer’s vision of a mammoth defensive line will have to wait a little longer.
Sam Ekstrom covers the Vikings with colleague Matthew Coller at Purple Insider. Check out the Purple Insider Podcast here and consider subscribing to the Purple Insider newsletter for daily Vikings news from credentialed reporters.