On Paper, Minnesota Has Improved Their Defense, but It’s Too Early to Say They’re Back
Folks, there is good reason to be optimistic about the Minnesota Vikings defense. The addition of Xavier Woods, Mackensie Alexander, Patrick Peterson, and Dalvin Tomlinson should make a massive difference, especially when they’re partnered with some greater health luck. The defense looks really deep. There are elite players (Danielle Hunter, Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith), great vets (Peterson, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce), and young upside players (Cameron Dantzler, D.J. Wonnum, Jeff Gladney). Reasons for optimism abound.
Be that as it may, it’s premature to say that Zimmer has his elite defense back. Indeed, the only thing that really matters is what happens on the field. Perhaps Peterson is too old, and maybe having Tomlinson/Pierce along the interior means Minnesota will continue struggling with the pass rush. I don’t think these things will occur, and neither does the Vikings’ leadership. Even still, the possibility remains that the Vikings defense doesn’t take the massive step forward that we’re all hoping for.
Optimism for the Minnesota Vikings Defense
Overall, fans should be feeling encouraged. The personnel on the defensive side of the ball is much improved.
I, like many Vikings fans, had a miserable time on Christmas Day watching Alvin Kamara run all over Minnesota’s once-dominant group. When I began cheering for the Vikings, the Williams Wall was essentially eliminating the other team’s run game on a weekly basis. What I saw on Christmas was far from what I originally began cheering for.
Zim, understandably, wants to ensure this doesn’t happen again. He and Spielman have really prioritized the defensive side of the ball in free agency. Frankly, I’m thrilled with the direction they’ve taken.
The Tomlinson/Pierce duo are going to be a handful; Kendricks and Barr will thus have a much easier time staying clean in run defense. If the two mammoth defensive tackles can get some push on passing downs — I believe they will be able to — then our edge rushers will get home with greater consistency.
Furthermore, Zim has some tremendous depth in his secondary. Adding Alexander and Peterson will really help put things together. If Dantzler takes a step forward, Minnesota may end up being dominant in pass coverage. It’s unclear how Jeff Gladney will factor into the defense. We can be fairly certain that, at the very least, he will be a main depth piece who contributes on a consistent basis.
The real intrigue rests in what the team will do with Mike Hughes. A former first-round pick, Hughes has never lived up to potential, largely due to his various injuries. Currently, Hughes is fifth on the depth chart, and his roster spot is far from secure. Perhaps he can finally contribute on special teams, an area where the Vikings desperately need help.
Reasons to Be Cautious
The simple reality is that Minnesota’s defense wasn’t very good last season. Initially, the main issue was Kirk Cousins. His play in the opening six weeks was consistently subpar. He put the defense in a really tough position on multiple occasions. After the bye, though, Cousins elevated his game. He was excellent. The issue, of course, is that the defense spiraled downward.
By the end of the season, Minnesota’s defense was among the worst in the NFL. They finished 29th in points allowed and 27th in yards allowed. The Vikings cannot be successful if their defense is anything less than really good. Their identity is wrapped up in complementary football, an approach to the game that requires the defense to consistently put the offense in advantageous positions (which is to say nothing of the special teams; that’s a different topic for a different day).
There are any number of scenarios where Minnesota falls back into familiar traps on defense, whether through injury, lackluster performances from key players, or a myriad of other possibilities. The key rests not only in bringing in more talent but in 1) keeping that talent healthy and 2) finding a way to bring the various talented players together into a coherent, dominant defense. All the parts are there. The onus falls on Zim to get the most of his group. If he fails in his task, the Minnesota Vikings will likely be looking for another head coach next offseason.
Pat Shurmer would often say that it’s about the players, not the plays. The basic idea is that the important thing in football is the players, not the coaches, scheme, or play calls. By no means am I trying to suggest that things like coaching or scheme don’t matter; they are massively important ingredients in a successful football stew. That being said, if the players simply aren’t very good, no amount of coaching will fix things, especially in the NFL.
The personnel on the Minnesota Vikings defense is vastly improved. We have good reason to hope for a far superior defense, but it’s misguided to expect it as a guarantee. Of course, it’s hard to envision them being much worse; any seasoned Vikings fan will likely tell you that this team has a way of finding new lows. Vikings fans ought to exercise some caution in their optimism.