EAGAN, Minn. — The Minnesota Vikings’ protection didn’t simply obtain a facelift. Over the previous 4 months, the unit underwent a complete reconstruction following the worst season of coach Mike Zimmer’s tenure.
Zimmer’s discontent over the way in which his group carried out in 2020 got here to a head in a Christmas Day loss to the New Orleans Saints when he known as the Vikings’ protection the “worst one I’ve ever had.” His frustrations prompted main change this offseason, from scheme changes to pouring sources into extra expertise.
Minnesota added 16 defensive gamers by free company and the draft. The Vikings will add two gamers into the combination who have been sidelined final 12 months — defensive finish Danielle Hunter and defensive deal with Michael Pierce — together with linebacker Anthony Barr, whose season resulted in Week 2 when he tore his pectoral muscle.
“It’s in all probability going to look fully totally different on the defensive aspect of the ball than it did final 12 months with the fellows coming again and the additions that we made,” Zimmer stated. “I’m enthusiastic about that.”
Within the span of a pair months, the Vikings’ protection went from injury-ridden and inexperienced to a gaggle stocked with expertise. Even after spending huge to signal defensive deal with Dalvin Tomlinson, cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Mackensie Alexander and security Xavier Woods, Minnesota added extra. This month, the Vikings signed former Chiefs cornerback Bashaud Breeland to compete as an out of doors nook and shored up their inside move rush by re-signing defensive deal with Sheldon Richardson.
The Vikings bouncing again from a 7-9 end is contingent upon the success of their protection. Getting this group again to type is Zimmer’s mission, and even those that haven’t been round very lengthy wish to feed off that motivation.
“A coach like that that basically walks round, he is a defensive-minded coach, he loves the corners,” Breeland stated. “I’ve by no means actually had that sort of head coach so it is sort of new. The power that he brings and offers to his gamers earlier than follow, I imply he is a pleasant refined man, he strikes quietly, however on the identical time when he talks, he speaks.
“He was educating [Peterson] the approach and he seemed over at me like ‘What you , why you ain’t out right here?’ I am like ‘You train one, you train all of us,’ however he nonetheless made me come on the market and actually get my very own rep and get my very own really feel. He exhibits every participant that they are their very own individual and he treats them accordingly.”
Added Barr: “He’s all the time been the sort of coach that has a chip on his shoulder, that goes about issues in only a very hard-working sort of style. I don’t assume that’s any totally different. He involves work daily, fired up, able to get higher. He simply lays out the expectations and defined final 12 months was not ok and never solely disappointing however irritating.”
Including expertise was only one a part of the Vikings’ plan to rejuvenate the protection. Coming off a season through which they allowed 475 factors (third-most in franchise historical past), 393.3 yards per recreation (27th in NFL), 7.65 yards per move try (30th) and ranked 27th towards the run by permitting 134.4 yards per recreation, Zimmer and his teaching workers labored on schematic adjustments.
“As a defensive workers, we did a whole lot of work on learning totally different fronts, totally different coverages, across the league — and even some in faculty soccer — that persons are doing to attempt to deal with what offenses are doing at present,” 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.
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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.