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.
The Minnesota Vikings’ defense got whooped by the Green Bay Packers in Week 1.
By now you know the stats but they’re worth repeating. Green Bay put up the most points allowed in the Mike Zimmer era, held the ball for 41 minutes and produced over 500 yards of total offense.
It was every worst-case scenario all at once. The Vikings didn’t pressure Aaron Rodgers, the inexperienced corners didn’t cover Davante Adams and they didn’t make enough bend-don’t-break plays on third down or in the red zone.
And recently-acquired Pro Bowl pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue registered just one pressure on 44 plays (per Pro Football Focus).
The only silver lining is this: It’s only Week 1.
This week the Vikings head to Indianapolis to face the desperate Colts with a chance to put the pieces back together on defense. That starts with Ngakoue.
How rare was his poor showing against the Packers? Only two other times in the last two years did he fail to register at least two pressures. Last year he pressured opposing QBs at least four times in seven of his 15 games. His 42.5 (out of 100) PFF grade was the lowest since Week 14 of 2018.
“I feel like I could’ve made a bigger impact of helping the d-line out, just forcing more pressures on the quarterback, regardless who’s there or back there in the pocket,” Ngakoue said on Wednesday. “I’ve still got a bad taste in my mouth and I want to make it right this weekend.”
In past years the Vikings could afford the occasional bad performance from one of their key defenders because they had so much talent to go around. This season they need their top pass rusher to play like a star each week with Danielle Hunter out and inexperienced players on the field at defensive end, defensive tackle and all three cornerback spots.
It’s hard to fathom the impact of Hunter’s absence. To put it in context, last week the Vikings pressured Rodgers seven times. That was around the same amount of pressures Hunter created per game by himself in 2019. That’s not even to mention the 66 total pressures that Everson Griffen had last season.
Judging by Week 1, Ngakoue is on his own. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who got to play the starting role with Hunter out, got after Rodgers just once and that was on a broken blocking assignment by the Packers. In 2019 he emerged as a successful situational rusher with 7.0 sacks but having Odenigbo out of that role is disadvantageous in comparison to moving him all over the D-line as a pure rusher.
The interior of the D-line without Odenigbo mixing in saw Hercules Mata’afa and Armon Watts struggle to push the Packers’ offensive linemen back and two-down defensive tackles Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson combined for just two successful rushes.
Without pressure, Rodgers picked apart the Vikings’ young cornerbacks. When targeting either Holton Hill, Mike Hughes and Cam Dantzler, Rodgers completed 19 of 23 passes and three touchdowns.
But this is why the Vikings traded for Ngakoue. He’s the type of game-wrecking player who can take over by himself. And he’s done that at times against the Colts in the past. Ngakoue has 31 pressures on Colts quarterbacks in his last six matchups against them as a member of the Jaguars.
“They try to get their hands on you and just try to swallow you up...so I’ve just got to try to bring that same intensity that I’ve brought these last four years into this game,” Ngakoue said.
If he doesn’t pressure Colts quarterback Philip Rivers, he will make the Vikings pay. Last week against the Jaguars he completed 32 of 41 passes with a clean pocket for 330 yards.
Rivers is a tremendous, competitive player,” Zimmer said. “Still can make all the throws. He’s really, really smart and sees a lot of different things. Even though you played him recently, it’s always tough playing those guys.”
The Vikings forced Rivers to have one of his worst games of 2019 by sacking him and picking him off three times. If they can cause havoc again, Rivers is prone to the big mistake. From 2019 through Week 1, only Jameis Winston has more interceptions than Rivers.
It will be on Nkagoue’s shoulders to cause some of those miscues. Zimmer said on Wednesday that he’s confident that will come.
“It was tough on him coming in that late and trying to get all the techniques and everything we’re trying to get done,” Zimmer said. “So, I’m sure as the season progresses, he’ll continue to understand things more.”
He’ll have to get up to speed quick because things do not get any easier after Sunday’s winnable game against the Colts. They face off with a strong Tennessee Titans team and then two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in DeShaun Watson and Russell Wilson.
Otherwise Zimmer will have to continue trying to get pressure with blitzes. He dialed up at least one extra rusher on 20 out of 44 Packers drop backs. While some got home, it wasn’t enough to throw off Rodgers and now opponents will be prepared for extra rushers.
“Even though he likes a four-man rush, he can get a five and six-man rush real quick and has all those weapons in his arsenal,” Colts head coach Frank Reich said.
If Ngakoue rises to the challenge, the Vikings’ defense won’t need extra measures. With a big showing, they could begin turning things -- or at least surviving while Hunter is out.