At first glance, Ed Donatell looks out of place on the Minnesota Vikings coaching staff. The 65-year-old appears to share more in common with Mike Zimmer than the rest of Kevin O’Connell‘s crew. Donatell and Zimmer are sexagenarians who came up coaching defensive backs, but their personalities and defensive philosophies could not be more different.
Donatell runs a 3-4; Zimmer ran a 4-3. Zimmer was an old-school ball coach who believed in the fundamentals of running and sound defense. He was hard-bitten and leaned on his veterans, sometimes to a fault. Donatell seems energized by working with young people. He revels in rookie Akayleb Evans’ rapid development and embraces special teams coach Matt Daniels’ limitless energy. He constantly praises O’Connell’s ability as a leader.
Perhaps Donatell’s similarities to Zimmer are the genesis of some fans’ animosity toward him. Maybe it was Troy Aikman criticizing him on national TV in Week 2. Or perhaps the optics of a defense that bends but doesn’t break. To be fair, the Purple faithful are also skeptical of this team’s 7-1 record – as are national pundits. And it’s not like O’Connell has avoided scrutiny, but most people see him as an upgrade over Zimmer. Wes Phillips avoids attention because O’Connell is calling the plays, and it’s tough not to love Daniels’ personality.
Still, Donatell’s defense has done its job. They held the Green Bay Packers to seven points in Week 1 and haven’t given up more than 26 points since. They held Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals in check two weeks ago and came up big in the 20-17 win over the Washington Commanders. The defense locked in following a fluke touchdown where Heinicke threw to Curtis Samuel in triple-coverage and an official likely prevented Camryn Bynum from picking him off.
- Evans forced a turnover on downs when Taylor Heinicke targeted Terry McLaurin on fourth-and-one.
- Down 17-10 with 7:56 left in the game, Harrison Smith picked off Heinicke’s deep pass and returned it to the Commanders’ 12-yard line. The Vikings tied the game two plays later.
- The defense forced a three-and-out on Washington’s next possession, and O’Connell drained the clock to 12 seconds before Greg Joseph sealed it.
- However, just like Minnesota’s Monday night loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 lingers on their record, their defensive performance in Philly is seared into people’s brains. Jalen Hurts completed his first 12 passes, Quez Watkins scored a 53-yard touchdown on broken coverage, and the Eagles were up 24-7 at halftime. Aikman criticized Donatell’s “shell” defense on the ESPN broadcast.
But the defense held Philadephia scoreless in the second half. Minnesota’s Monday night loss had as much to do with Cousins’ inability to counter the blitz as it did the defense. Early in the third quarter, Patrick Peterson blocked a kick, giving the Vikings a chance to score from the Philadelphia 30-yard line. They came away from nothing. Later, Jordan Hicks picked Hurts and brought the ball to the Eagles nine-yard line. Again, the offense failed to convert.
The Eagles game was hardly the defense’s best effort this year. But the loss wasn’t entirely their fault.
Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense tested Donatell’s unit, and they passed. The Buffalo Bills and Dallas Cowboys will put stress on it in the next two weeks. Even if Josh Allen doesn’t play, everyone in Minnesota knows that Case Keenum is a capable backup. He’ll have old friend Stefon Diggs and plenty of other weapons surrounding him. But Donatell’s Vic Fangio-inspired bend-don’t-break scheme is built to give O’Connell’s Sean McVay-inspired offense a chance to win the game. If they do their job, Minnesota can upset Buffalo on the road.
It’s fair to have some consternation over the defense. It hasn’t been perfect by any means. But just like it’s unfair to think of Donatell as a Zimmer-type coach, it’s incorrect to have the same expectations of his defense. The Vikings rode Zimmer’s elite defense to the NFC Championship, despite playing Keenum under center, and thanks to a Diggs miracle. Under O’Connell, though, it should be the offense that carries the defense. The defense just needs to carry its weight. So far, it has.