The Vikings Are Rebuilding Their Defense On the Fly

One of the more fascinating components of Minnesota’s offseason rested in the seemingly contradictory moves they made. Some decisions suggested they were embracing a rebuild (trading Stefon Diggs, moving on from several players on defense, etc.). Other decisions suggested they were still planning to compete in 2020 (extending Kirk Cousins, applying the franchise tag to Anthony Harris, etc.). Almost halfway through the NFL season, the Vikings’ strategy remains stubbornly persistent.

It appeared that they were embracing the tank when they traded Yannick Ngakoue to the Baltimore Ravens, and yet they failed to continue the tanking-trend before Tuesday’s trade deadline. The season’s midpoint leaves the Vikings in a familiar position: somehow straddling the line between a full rebuild and a mere retool. Nowhere is this more evident than with their defense. 

Rebuilding the Vikings Defense on the Fly

Mike Zimmer’s defense played reasonably well against the Green Bay Packers in Week 8. Holding Aaron Rodgers & Friends to 22 points is a laudable achievement under normal circumstances, especially at Lambeau. Sunday’s win wasn’t under normal circumstances. By the end of the game, Harris was playing in the slot because the Vikings literally ran out of healthy corners.

Zimmer – widely acknowledged as being The Corner Whisperer – has his hands full with this beleaguered, inexperienced group of corners. The only regular starter who is healthy is Jeff Gladney. The rookie first-rounder has been excellent in run defense, but his coverage is a work in progress.

The Vikings are hoping sophomore Kris Boyd can play a full game on Sunday. Otherwise, there is a lot of uncertainty. Cameron Dantzler, Mark Fields II, and Holton Hill are all out. Harrison Hand, a fifth-round rookie, is questionable

The corner injuries magnify a troubling issue: Minnesota’s defense is being forced to resort to a bend-but-don’t-break style. Quite often, we’re white-knuckling our way through a game rather than shutting down the opponent. We’re a long way from 2017’s dominant defense.

The Vikings are currently allowing 30.6 points per game, which is 29th in the NFL. In 2017, the defense allowed 15.8 points per game, which was 1st in the NFL. You read that correctly: the current Vikings defense is, on average, allowing around twice the amount of points per game. A few years certainly makes a big difference, folks.

The Defensive Stalwarts

Of course, the defense in its entirety isn’t beset by injury and inexperience. Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Harris have been excellent. Shamar Stephen and Ifeadi Odenigbo have been solid. Part of the issue, though, is that four of these five players don’t play the most important positions. In today’s NFL, successful defenses have stud edge rushers and corners. In other words, successful defenses are the ones that can eliminate the pass.

Now, we should clarify that the aforementioned defensive stalwarts do make a big, big impact in pass defense. Go back and rewatch Kendricks’ game against Green Bay; his PBU on Davante Adams was incredible. Smith and Harris offer similarly strong play. Nevertheless, the point remains that Minnesota is hurting (often in the most literal sense of that word) at the most important positions. 

Earlier this week, Zimmer reflected on his young corners. He said that they’re currently in kindergarten, but that he is trying to hasten them toward a master’s level. Therein lies the issue: the Vikings roster screams rebuild, and yet the Cousins-Zimmer-Spielman Leadership Trinity remains consistent in their pursuit of 2020 contention.

In fairness, this season has been a peculiar one, and the rules certainly make it easier for below-average teams to make an unlikely playoff push (a win against the Packers doesn’t change the fact that we’re 2-5 and therefore below average).

During the offseason, the NFL expanded the playoffs to seven teams per conference. Some suggest that the playoffs could even be expanded to eight teams. The Vikings, then, have some hope of making the postseason. According to FiveThirtyEight, Minnesota has a 14% shot of making the postseason. Vikings fans, like your humble author, likely would have put this number a fair bit lower. 

Success in 2020

We’ve written about what success looks like for the Vikings in 2020. After an 0-3 start, we suggested that the focus ought to shift toward succeeding in 2021. Success, then, is a thoroughly future-oriented word, one that embraces short-term pain for long-term gain. At TVG, we’re sticking by this perspective. 

Mike Zimmer is a good football coach. In all likelihood, this defense is going to improve, even if there are injuries. The end result may be an unlikely playoff spot. Even still, the reality is that Minnesota’s roster has some glaring flaws. The only way to overcome these flaws rests in consistently elite play from a quarterback. Kirk Cousins, God bless him, isn’t this quarterback. 

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Vikings’ decision to opt for the middle way between a full rebuild and a mere retool may have been the right approach. The current indications are that Rick Spielman and Zimmer are secure in their jobs, and they certainly want to avoid creating a culture where losing is acceptable. The path forward involves embracing the contradictions of a team that consists of top-end contracts and developing rookies. Indeed, the Vikings will rebuild their defense on the fly, stubbornly pursuing success in this season and beyond.