EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ defense didn’t just receive a facelift. Over the past four months, the unit underwent a total reconstruction following the worst season of coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure.
Zimmer’s discontent over the way his group performed in 2020 came to a head in a Christmas Day loss to the New Orleans Saints when he called the Vikings’ defense the “worst one I’ve ever had.” His frustrations prompted major change this offseason, from scheme adjustments to pouring resources into more talent.
Minnesota added 16 defensive players through free agency and the draft. The Vikings will add two players into the mix who were sidelined last year — defensive end Danielle Hunter and defensive tackle Michael Pierce — along with linebacker Anthony Barr, whose season ended in Week 2 when he tore his pectoral muscle.
“It’s probably going to look completely different on the defensive side of the ball than it did last year with the guys coming back and the additions that we made,” Zimmer said. “I am excited about that.”
In the span of a couple months, the Vikings’ defense went from injury-ridden and inexperienced to a group stocked with talent. Even after spending big to sign defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander and safety Xavier Woods, Minnesota added more. This month, the Vikings signed former Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland to compete as an outside corner and shored up their interior pass rush by re-signing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson.
The Vikings bouncing back from a 7-9 finish is contingent upon the success of their defense. Getting this group back to form is Zimmer’s mission, and even those who haven’t been around very long want to feed off that motivation.
“A coach like that that really walks around, he’s a defensive-minded coach, he loves the corners,” Breeland said. “I’ve never really had that type of head coach so it’s kind of new. The energy that he brings and gives to his players before practice, I mean he’s a nice subtle guy, he moves quietly, but at the same time when he talks, he speaks.
“He was teaching [Peterson] the technique and he looked over at me like ‘What you looking at, why you ain’t out here?’ I’m like ‘You teach one, you teach all of us,’ but he still made me come out there and really get my own rep and get my own feel. He shows each player that they’re their own person and he treats them accordingly.”
Added Barr: “He’s always been the kind of coach that has a chip on his shoulder, that goes about things in just a very hard-working type of fashion. I don’t think that’s any different. He comes to work every day, fired up, ready to get better. He just lays out the expectations and explained last year was not good enough and not only disappointing but frustrating.”
Adding talent was just one part of the Vikings’ plan to rejuvenate the defense. Coming off a season in which they allowed 475 points (third-most in franchise history), 393.3 yards per game (27th in NFL), 7.65 yards per pass attempt (30th) and ranked 27th against the run by allowing 134.4 yards per game, Zimmer and his coaching staff worked on schematic changes.
“As a defensive staff, we did a lot of work on studying different fronts, different coverages, around the league — and even some in college football — that people are doing to try to handle what offenses are doing today,” assistant head coach Andre Patterson said. “It reminded me [of] back when Zim and I were in Dallas. I think it was after the 2000 season, and we had been running the same defense forever. We got together and studied and came up with the scheme that we use now. And it was an offseason that was a lot of learning, a lot of us growing as coaches, and that’s what happened this offseason.
“We spent a lot of time studying and working and evaluating different fronts and different coverages that you can use in different situations. I think we got better as a coaching staff, and we came up with some things that I think are going to help our players.”
The Vikings have foreshadowed some of that this spring by mixing in more 3-4 fronts in practices, which Zimmer has done in the past. What a team does in the offseason doesn’t guarantee wholesale changes in the fall, but the addition of several players could trigger more changes than normal.
For example, the efforts the Vikings put on the interior of the defensive line could provide them with more options for getting after the quarterback. That includes utilizing Tomlinson and Richardson as defensive ends in a 3-4 front (with Pierce at nose) and having Hunter and Barr rush the passer from a standing position off the edge.
Minnesota’s efforts to bolster a pass rush that produced a franchise-low 23 sacks last season will benefit the defense everywhere, especially the unit that struggled the most last season.
“Any fan that ever asks me about playing defense or whatever, I’m like, ‘The secondary is always just about as good as the pass rush,’” safety Harrison Smith said. “You can have great players back there that are going to make plays from time to time just on their own, but throughout the length of the year, you’ve gotta have both work together.
“You’re not going to always cover perfectly and you’re not going to always rush the passer perfectly, so if you can complement one another well, it normally works out in your favor. Obviously we’ve got a lot of guys up there now, which you just kind of need in this league.”
The Vikings’ secondary will also benefit from a number of factors it lacked in 2020, particularly with depth and experience. Although 2020 third-round pick Cameron Dantzler was sidelined with an apparent injury in spring practices, he’ll compete alongside Peterson and Breeland for a starting corner spot in training camp.
Harrison Hand and Kris Boyd got considerable reps this spring and will duke it out to find a spot on the depth chart. Even amid the uncertainty with 2020 first-round corner Jeff Gladney’s availability in 2021 given his legal issues, the Vikings have more cornerbacks than they’ll be able to fit on the active roster. That’s a welcome challenge after a season in which they scraped the bottom of the barrel to get by.