Coller: Can Vikings' remaining stars sustain excellence on defense?

Matthew Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for BMTN, with more of his work found at Purple Insider.
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Danielle Hunter

Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.

Because the Minnesota Vikings’ defense had been together for so long, training camp was almost a formality in recent years. The unit changed so little that every starter in the Vikings’ playoff loss to San Francisco last season was on the team in 2016. By last year, they might have been the only defense in the NFL that would have been ready to start the season in late July. That is far from the case in 2020.

Now Everson Griffen is in Dallas, Linval Joseph is a Charger, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are Bengals and Xavier Rhodes is a Colt. One of their replacements, defensive tackle Michael Pierce, opted out of the season because of health concerns.

At practice so far, we have seen third-round draft pick Cameron Dantzler put together some highlight reel plays while mixing in with first-round pick Jeff Gladney on first-team reps. Experienced role players Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo are now expected to start on the defensive line.

Still the Vikings have star power. Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter have all been Pro Bowlers and Anthony Harris ranked as Pro Football Focus’s second best safety last year.

Head coach Mike Zimmer is confident that his high-IQ players can lead another successful defense.

“We’re very, very fortunate that we have two really smart safeties, three really smart linebackers, we’ve got a couple smart defensive linemen … so these guys can make adjustments, checks, adjustments on plays,” Zimmer said. “They’ve seen things … Barr and Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, they’ve been around us for numbers of years now. Seven, some of them. Honestly, I feel pretty good about where we’re at.”

The question is whether the stars can raise the level of play of everyone around them. Historically speaking cornerback has been a very difficult position to transition from college to the NFL. Last season only eight rookie corners played at least 675 snaps and just two of those eight allowed below league average QB ratings against when targeted. DeAndre Baker, the first corner picked in the 2019 draft, gave up a 130.1 rating against and had nine penalties (according to PFF).

Dantzler said that the league’s best safety duo has made the transition under tough circumstances much easier.

“Having veteran safeties like Harrison and Ant, those guys have been phenomenal to us younger guys,” he said. “They’ve just been showing us the ropes, leading us the way.”

The Vikings’ defensive coaches have seen the same impact from players becoming pseudo coaches in camp this year.

“They set the tone in that meeting room and it makes it much easier for a coach if you can take a young player and just point to a guy like Harrison or Anthony and say, ‘This is how you do it,’ assistant Dom Capers said. “There’s a reason why they’ve been very productive football players.’ They are the leaders. They set the tone. They are great communicators, which is important.”

“Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks... Shamar and Danielle... They pull those guys over to the side and say, ‘Hey, work on this drill? Or, this is the reason why Dre wants you to do it this way or that way,’” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “’ I think it’s been a big part of our whole defense and not just with the young secondary guys.”

This isn’t particularly new for the Vikings under Zimmer, it’s just been awhile. When Hunter was an up-and-coming star, he worked with Griffen and Brian Robison. When Rhodes was coming into his own, Terence Newman taught him how to watch film the right way.

Even as the stars rally around the less experienced players, a PFF study earlier this offseason found that defenses tend to only be as strong as their weakest links rather than being as strong as their best players, as we often see with offenses.

“A defense’s performance in coverage is every bit a function of lesser-regarded players than it is its stars,” PFF’s Eric Eager wrote. “And while the highest-performing pass rusher in a game can be the most important, results there are mixed as well, as the highest-graded pass rusher going into a game is not the one who has the biggest impact on game results from a pass defense perspective.”

In recent years there aren’t many examples of times in which the Vikings played backups or young players on defense because they had a remarkable health record on that side of the ball. But there are a few examples, like when Andrew Luck went 21-for-28 with 250 yards and two touchdowns in a game late in the 2016 season with Harrison Smith out or last year when Dak Prescott attacked Mike Hughes and completed 11 passes into his coverage.

That doesn’t mean there are no solutions if the young players struggle at times. Zimmer hired Dom Capers with the intent of finding creative ways to pressure quarterbacks that he hasn’t used in the past. But even Capers acknowledges he can only be as creative as far as his players can handle.

“We certainly have an array of different things that we can do, and there’s an awful lot of good things,” Capers said. “The critical part will be deciding how much we can do, and do efficiently, and do full-speed and especially early in the season as we mix some of these younger players into our defense.”

While the data may find that teams are only as good as their weakest link on defense, which opens the door to some potential tough games early on, the Vikings will have an opportunity to find out who those links are. It has been a long time since that type of intrigue existed with a Zimmer defense and it has added a unique buzz to training camp this year.

On Friday the Vikings plan to play a two quarter scrimmage at US Bank Stadium. That is the closest we will get to a preview of the strong and weak links performing together until Week 1, when they will be immediately tested against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. 

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