Kwesi Adofo-Mensah inherited a dumpster fire on defense when he took the Minnesota Vikings’ general manager job back in January. Over the past two seasons, the Vikings rank 27th in points allowed, 27th in passing yards allowed, and 28th in rushing yards allowed.
With a defense that needed to be completely revamped across the board, Adofo-Mensah hit the ground running in free agency by signing defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, linebacker Jordan Hicks, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith, and nickelback Chandon Sullivan. And armed with the No. 12, 46, and 77 picks over the first two days of the NFL Draft, the Vikings were in a position to put the finishing touches on their much-needed defensive overhaul.
The overwhelming consensus from the talking heads was that the Vikings desperately needed to spend their top pick on a cornerback, despite returning both starters in Patrick Peterson and Cameron Dantzler who allowed a more than respectable 78.7 and 74.7 passer ratings when targeted last season. Yes, Peterson is aging and is back on just a one-year contract. And the succession planning at corner was necessary. Minnesota’s selection of Andrew Booth at 42nd overall should alleviate any concerns of being left high and dry if and when Peterson moves on following the 2022 season. And Lewis Cine allows the former Georgia Bulldog to take the baton from Harrison Smith as the future quarterback of Minnesota’s secondary.
But what happens to the Vikings’ defensive front if Dalvin Tomlinson plays elsewhere in 2023? After all, Tomlinson’s contract is set to expire after this year.
By spending his first two draft picks on the secondary, Adofo-Mensah prioritized Minnesota’s 27th-ranked pass defense over its 28th-ranked run defense since 2020.
But what if that philosophy is fundamentally wrong in today’s NFL?
Yes, the game has morphed into a passing league over the last decade. And, yes, teams need to do everything they possibly can to slow down the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow. But if we learned anything from the 2021 Vikings, it’s that getting demolished on the ground causes significantly more harm to your chances of victory than giving up 300-plus yards through the air.
Before I go any further, it’s important to note that being a bottom feeder against both the pass and run is obviously less than ideal. In a perfect world, both facets of Minnesota’s defense will see significant improvements in 2022. But if forced to choose between the two, stopping the run will always be paramount in football, at any level.
Caught up in a shootout against the eventual NFL MVP Rodgers at US Bank Stadium in Week 11 of last season, Minnesota clung to a 31-24 lead with just over two minutes remaining when they sent their defense back onto the field. Instead of a slow, methodical drive that drained the clock, Rodgers tied the game up on one play, leaving ample time for Kirk Cousins to lead the game-winning drive on the following possession.
By having one of the best offenses in the league, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when the Vikings find themselves in high-flying shootouts that allow for quick scores. Let’s not forget, back in Week 2 the Vikings were a 37-yard Greg Joseph missed field goal away from coming out of their shootout in Arizona with a victory.
It’s the alternative that can be devastating for Minnesota — or any other elite NFL offense that is forced to sit on the sidelines for extended periods of time. Against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9, the Vikings possessed the ball for only 23:40 after Baltimore controlled the game by rushing for 247 yards and possessing the ball for 46:04. The fact that Minnesota was still able to put up 31 points on just nine possessions shows just how electrifying this offense can be.
Or how about in Week 12 against the San Francisco 49ers? The Vikings possessed the ball for just 22:53 compared to 37:07 for San Francisco. The Vikings surrendered 208 yards on the ground, and the 49ers dominated the trenches defensively by holding the Vikings to just 67 rushing yards. By thoroughly controlling the line of scrimmage, the Niners effectively kept Minnesota’s dangerous offense on the sidelines in the 34-26 defeat. That included a 12-play, 72-yard drive that drained the clock from 9:04 to just 1:56 when the Vikings got the ball back on their final possession.
And even on the rarest of occasions last season, when Minnesota’s pass defense held up their end of the bargain by forcing the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams into three interceptions and just 197 yards through the air, Sean McVay‘s group was still able to control the game by holding the Vikings to 66 rushing yards and gashing Minnesota’s defense for 159 yards on the ground.
Though the NFL is fully entrenched as a passing league, even former quarterback Carson Palmer understands the connection that exists between controlling the line of scrimmage and winning football games.
Had the Vikings stood pat at pick No. 12 in the draft and selected Jordan Davis out of Georgia, Minnesota’s woes against the run would have taken a serious step in the right direction. By having Davis control the line of scrimmage on early downs against the run, his monstrous presence almost singlehandedly creates third-and-long situations, allowing Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith to do what they do best: getting after opposing quarterbacks.
With Adofo-Mensah essentially saying thanks but no thanks to a potentially elite run defense with Davis, the Vikings are inviting their opponents to control the line of scrimmage and keep Minnesota’s offense off the field by running the ball down their throat and sustaining long drives.
To have a defense that can help contribute to winning, the age-old saying of “You gotta crawl before you can walk” still rings true. Even though having the ability to defend the pass is obviously important, does spending top resources on a secondary even matter if your defense can’t force obvious passing situations by stopping the run?
With the current shape of Minnesota’s defense, it’s fair to ask if the new regime is prioritizing the wrong half of Minnesota’s basement-dwelling defense. Or was it simply a coincidence that both the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams made the Super Bowl last season with defenses that ranked in the top six against the run but 26th and 22nd against the pass?
Even in today’s pass-happy NFL, you have to be able to stop the run before you can worry about defending the pass. Hopefully, Harrison Phillips is up to the task of revitalizing Minnesota’s run defense, because Adofo-Mensah missed a golden opportunity to do exactly that with Jordan Davis.