Championship Weekend Sets the Standard For the Vikings’ DC Hire

Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

When the Minnesota Vikings hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, we heard a lot about the plans for a “competitive rebuild” from the new regime in TCO Performance Center.

Thirteen wins later, you might think that the 2022 Vikings team did a lot more competing than rebuilding. And that’s probably true. The Vikings found success this season and made an aggressive move for a player like T.J. Hockenson to take advantage of that opportunity. Juxtapose all that with another team touting a competitive rebuild in the three-win Chicago Bears, and it’s clear which team had their eyes on success in 2022 and which was counting their draft picks by the end of October.

But as Vikings fans gathered around this past weekend to watch the conference championships, something became abundantly clear. This was a fun season for Minnesota, but the “rebuild” part still has a long way to go to play that level of January football — especially on defense.

Maybe I had been too hyper-focused on Minnesota this year. It was almost as though I had forgotten what a talented, aggressive, and well-coached defense looked like, especially in the AFC Championship between the Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs. Both teams touted dynamic, high-powered offenses and badasses at quarterback. However, the versatility and aggressiveness of their defenses jumped off the screen.

Both defensive coordinators coached a hell of a game. Kansas City’s Steve Spagnuolo and Cincinnati’s Lou Anarumo had their hands full containing the offensive superstars in this matchup. Yet what could’ve been a recipe for a shootout became a tight, balanced slugfest to the very end. And while some of that may be attributed to a hobbled Mahomes and an under-pressure Burrow, containing the likes of Ja’Marr Chase or Travis Kelce is commendable nonetheless.

Despite starting multiple rookies in the secondary, Spagnuolo coached the Chiefs’ defense to completely stonewalling the Bengals to zero yards in the first quarter and got clutch stops in the fourth quarter to keep Cincinnati off the board. This complementary football gave Skyy Moore, Patrick Mahomes, and Harrison Butker (with an assist from Joseph Ossai) a chance to win the game in the final moments and punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

After a year of watching the Vikings play soft, bend-then-break defense this year, that game recalibrated my expectation of what championship defense should look like. If Kevin O’Connell is ever going to take this team to the promised land, he needs to be much more successful in his second DC hire than his first one. He needs his own Spagnuolo or Anarumo.

We saw Minnesota make pretty impressive progress on offense this year. It was a successful proof of concept for O’Connell’s first full season as an NFL play-caller. Barring a few meltdowns and occasional start/stop choppiness, this team has plenty of reasons for optimism on offense.

On the other hand, the defense was mostly an unmitigated disaster.

Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter can still play. Brian Asamoah and Duke Shelley emerged as young, fun pieces to build around. Harrison Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson are good players on the interior. And while Patrick Peterson and Harrison Smith are slowing down, they still have something to offer. Those are the few bright spots.

Almost every other Vikings defender not mentioned above has not given this regime any reason to think they can depend on them to play even above-average football. This defense lacked talent, under-utilized its skill, and played a brand of football that felt like it was in constant fear of the next bad thing waiting to happen. Unfortunately, many of these problems predate Ed Donatell’s tenure. We also watched similar bad results play out in Mike Zimmer’s final season.

The culture and attitude of that side of the ball need a complete overhaul.

Considering how little schematic progress we saw this team make this past season, I don’t think they should hesitate to wipe the schematic slate clean. I don’t have a preference between 4-3 or 3-4 or man-match vs. zone-match. This team needs a defensive coordinator who can teach their scheme, maximize the roster talent, and start making things uncomfortable for opposing offenses again. If you’re looking for reasons for optimism, it seems the two leading candidates to undertake this defensive rebuild are both exciting.

Ejiro Evero is a talented and aggressive play-caller. He should be your ideal candidate if overhauling the scheme for the second-straight year scares you. Evero is your dude if you’re a fan of keeping the Fangio-style system that Donatell attempted (and failed) to institute last season and you think a better teacher and shot-caller can make this scheme work. His defense was the one thing keeping the Denver Broncos remotely competitive this past season, and that was even after trading away star pass rusher Bradley Chubb.

Meanwhile, Adofo-Mensah may be holding out hope that the Arizona Cardinals snub former Miami Dolphins head coach and Bill Belichick disciple Brian Flores for their head coaching position. If that happens, Flores’ track record speaks for itself. If the reports are true, and Miami’s ownership fired Flores for refusing to tank despite the front office gutting that roster and trying to fail on purpose, then he was so good at his job that it got him fired.

A potential Flores hiring would likely mean a scheme change back to a more familiar-looking, Zimmer-esque 4-3 man-match defense. Fortunately, that style of defense will be familiar for a lot of this roster because they’re only a year removed from something similar. Considering how this defense looked most Sundays in 2022, how much progress are we really scrapping here?

However this plays out, Adofo-Mensah and O’Connell should let the games from this past weekend serve as the championship standard. This team needs a defense lethal enough to make the plays in January necessary for true complementary football. The adage “defense wins championships” may seem outdated. Still, the ability for a team to get valuable stops and affect opposing quarterbacks in the big moments is a timeless necessity.

If the Vikings will reach that standard, it starts by getting this hire right.

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