Why Isn’t Minnesota’s Defensive Line Generating Pressure?

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After the Minnesota Vikings added Za’Darius Smith in the offseason and Danielle Hunter returned from a season-ending injury, the Vikings were expected to have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. However, that has not been the case through four games.

Hunter has been the most disappointing of the two. According to PFF, he has only generated eight pressures on 126 pass-rush snaps. To put that into perspective, D.J. Wonnum, the Vikings’ third-string defensive end, has had a higher pressure rate this season.

Hunter’s slow start could be a result of adjusting to the new defensive scheme the Vikings are running under Ed Donatell. But no matter how you put it, Hunter has been underwhelming and must improve.

Smith has been the better of the two by a pretty significant margin. He leads the team in pass-rush win percentage with a 23.5% win rate, nearly double Hunter’s (13.6%). However, Smith is currently nursing a knee injury and was on a limited snap count against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Ostensibly the stars of Minnesota’s defense, these two players have only recorded three sacks through the first four games — a total that would seem impossibly low at the start of the season. They are hardly the Purple People Eaters of Vikings lore.

The pass-rush problem does not stop there, though. As a team, the Vikings have only recorded 56 pressures for nine sacks this season. Again, a very sluggish start compared to the 13 sacks they recorded in the same amount of time last season with an aging Everson Griffen playing.

So the question now becomes, how can Donatell turn this unit around? The Vikings need to start blitzing more often. They hold the fourth-lowest blitz rate in the NFL heading into Week 5, according to Sam Ekstrom.

One thing about Mike Zimmer was that he always had creative blitzes that would make third-and-long situations a nightmare for opponents. However, Donatell has a very different philosophy. He rarely brings the blitz on third-and-long. It’s a common theme across all games this season. But the few times that he did bring a blitz, it worked.

For example, let’s look at the most crucial third-and-long of the game for the Vikings’ defense. The situation is third down with nine yards to go. If the Vikings can get a sack, it will force the Saints out of field goal position.

On this play, Donatell calls an overload blitz to the right side of the Saints’ offensive line with a brilliant disguise pre-snap. Smith and Eric Kendricks are mugging the A-gaps, and eight of 11 players are showing blitz, which makes it nearly impossible for Andy Dalton to set a perfect protection. However, Donatell would only bring five rushers, with four blitzing the left side, hence the term “overload.”

The one scary part about this play call is that he is blitzing both of the Vikings’ typical coverage linebackers, Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, leaving Wonnum and Za’Darius Smith in zone coverages underneath. But the idea is the blitz will get home so quickly that they won’t need to play coverage for long.

And that’s precisely how it went. Harrison Smith immediately got in Dalton’s face, forcing an errant throw and getting a huge stop for the defense.

Under Zimmer, these types of plays were a common occurrence. But Donatell uses them less, opting for a more conservative game plan.

However, suppose Donatell can find a balance between this type of aggressiveness and his usual safe play calls. In that case, I expect the Vikings’ defense to improve their ability to rush the passer greatly.

Ultimately, if the Vikings’ pass rush does not get better, we will continue to see quarterbacks of Jared Goff and Andy Dalton’s caliber torch the defense. Donatell’s scheme is predicated on the ability to get home with four rushers. But after four games, it is clear that something needs to change.

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