Will Minnesota's Defensive Front Be Their Biggest Obstacle This Year?

Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

That sure was a heck of a lot different than last year’s opener, eh? Last season, the Minnesota Vikings rang in the Kevin O’Connell era with an opening drive touchdown courtesy of Justin Jefferson on fourth-and-goal before beating the brakes off the Green Bay Packers. For an encore in 2023, Minnesota’s starting offense sloppily went three-and-out following a false start penalty by Brian O’Neill on third-and-two. And despite recording the NFL’s sixth-most offensive yardage (369) in Week 1, three first-half turnovers — one of which came from inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’s red zone — and poor execution on critical third downs in the fourth quarter helped fuel Minnesota’s 20-17 defeat.

Although the defense was exceptional for most of the game against fringe NFL-starting-caliber quarterback Baker Mayfield, this team’s biggest longterm obstacle in 2023 reared its ugly head when the Vikings could ill afford to do so. After giving up a touchdown on Tampa Bay’s opening drive of the second half — a drive in which the Buccaneers offense milked nine minutes off the clock — the defense was tasked with generating one last stop and creating positive field position for Minnesota’s sputtering second-half offense.

On Tampa’s opening play of their final offensive drive, with just under four minutes to go, Dean Lowry compounded the issue by being flagged for a 15-yard face mask penalty after Rachaad White picked up five yards on the ground. Two plays later, the Vikings’ defense was facing a third-and-three on the biggest play of the game and couldn’t get Mayfield and his offense off the field. He picked up four yards with his legs to move the sticks and end the game.

If you looked around the league on Sunday, multiple teams that are deservedly considered to be contenders won on the backs of their defensive front. Remember 2022 Pro Bowler Za’Darius Smith? His unit on the Cleveland Browns, including All-Pro Myles Garrett and former Viking Dalvin Tomlinson, were the driving force behind Cleveland’s upset victory over the 2021 AFC Champion and 2022 AFC runner-up Cincinnati Bengals. Cleveland’s new-look defensive front dominated Joe Burrow‘s offensive line and held the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner to 82 passing yards.

The Dallas Cowboys downright embarrassed the New York Giants inside MetLife Stadium on Sunday night. That’s the same Giants offense that put up 24 and 31 points on Minnesota’s defense in each contest last season. Dan Quinn’s front, led by All-Pro Micah Parsons, DeMarcus Lawrence, and Dorance Armstrong, totaled seven sacks and obliterated New York’s offensive line for 60 minutes.

After handing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave a four-year, $84 million contact on the opening day of free agency, the San Francisco 49ers (and NFL’s best defense) suffocated Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris at Heinz Field to the tune of five sacks, two interceptions, 41 rushing yards, and seven points allowed. Last year’s second-round pick edge rusher Drake Jackson recorded three sacks alone.

Hargrave’s former Philadelphia Eagles defense didn’t skip a beat in Week 1 with his absence. The ninth-overall 2023 draft pick defensive tackle Jalen Carter, Hargrave’s direct replacement, introduced himself to the NFL by generating eight pressures on a jaw-dropping 25% pressure rate with a sack in his debut at New England. And 2022 All-Pro Haason Reddick was his usual disruptive self with five pressures on an 11.9% pressure rate.

Marcus Davenport,  the oft-injured situational pass rusher that was brought in to replace Za’Darius Smith, was inactive against Tampa Bay due to an ankle injury. Although Danielle Hunter recorded a sack, his 9.7% pressure rate on 31 pass rushes simply isn’t good enough. He’s been unfairly asked to carry this considerably below-average front, especially when you compare it to contending teams. D.J. Wonnum started on the edge opposite of Hunter on Sunday and put up a goose egg of pressures on 29 pass rushes. And this came against a Tampa Bay offensive line that is widely regarded as one of the worst in the NFL, aside from All-Pro left tackle Tristan Wirfs.

Even defensive coordinator Brian Flores couldn’t disrupt Mayfield with his aggressive scheme. Per Pro Football Focus, the Vikings blitzed Mayfield on 21 of his 38 total dropbacks and didn’t record a sack on any of them. Minnesota pressured Mayfield on only an embarrassing nine of his 38 dropbacks.

The expectation should be properly set for Minnesota’s front four not being able to win consistently. But if Flores’ blitzes can’t even disrupt Mayfield behind Tampa Bay’s dreadful offensive line, that should seriously sound the alarm for this Vikings team — especially with the nauseatingly recurring lulls from their offensive counterparts.

Now on a short week on the road against the aforementioned Eagles, the Vikings will get yet another first-hand look at what is required to be a team that can withstand lapses of offensive execution. This is exactly what transpired for Jalen Hurts and the Philadelphia offense against Bill Belichick’s defense in Foxborough on Sunday. And that starts and stops with the dudes up front on defense. You think Jalen Carter and Jordan Davis are licking their chops to tee off against Ed Ingram, Austin Schlottmann, and Ezra Cleveland on the Thursday night stage for the entire football world to see? Not to mention Reddick, Josh Sweat, Milton Williams, Fletcher Cox, and Brandon Graham.

Eagles general manager Howie Roseman has prioritized his defensive front by continuously investing first-round picks and marquee free-agent signings. Meanwhile the Vikings are still the same franchise that hasn’t spent a first- or second-round draft pick on its defensive front since 2013. This is one of the more egregious decisions that an organization can make in the modern NFL.

And the long-term philosophical discrepancies when it comes to roster construction will be on full display — and for all the wrong reasons for Vikings fans — after Minnesota pays the not-so-lovely folks in the City of Brotherly Love a visit on Thursday night.

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Photo Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

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