The beginning of the Covid-19 season presents plenty of uncertainty for NFL teams. For the Minnesota Vikings, though, a few things are certain. Kirk Cousins – despite some impressive numbers – still struggles to elevate against quality teams, the Green Bay Packers foremost among them. The Vikings also know that their corners are young. One of the best ways to help a young corner rests in getting elite play from the defensive line. On Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line failed to produce in their task, largely contributing to Minnesota getting demolished at home.
The Struggles of the Minnesota Vikings Defensive Line
The Vikings and their fans have plenty of viable excuses. The strangeness of the off-season may have disproportionately impacted the Vikings given that they’re navigating so much roster turnover. Michael Pierce opted-out; Danielle Hunter is on the injured reserve. There were no fans in the stadium, largely nullifying home-field advantage. Excuses can only go so far, though. The simple fact is that Minnesota’s d-line didn’t play well. When you’re playing a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers – a Super Bowl champion, MVP, and future Hall of Famer – the d-line must generate pressure. Otherwise, it’ll likely be a long day, as Sunday’s game demonstrates.
Shortly after the game, Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson tweeted that Rodgers averaged 2.3 seconds to throw. That reality certainly makes it difficult for the defensive line to generate pressure. Everything on defense is interconnected. When the corners allow their men to get open immediately, the d-linemen have very little time to make the quarterback uncomfortable. On one occasion in the second quarter, Yannick Ngakoue beat David Bakhtiari with a club & rip move, generating immediate pressure on Rodgers. The issue, of course, is that Davante Adams was already open. Rodgers threw the ball before Ngakoue could get home. Take a look for yourself (around the 0:40 mark):
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) September 14, 2020
D-line coach and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson commonly explains that his priority is making a quarterback uncomfortable. Patterson is looking for consistent pressure rather than occasional sacks. Minnesota’s d-line provided neither on Sunday. Mike Zimmer will need to do a better job of disguising his coverages. He’ll also need to ensure his young corners are in advantageous matchups and that they’re disrupting routes off the line of scrimmage.
To his credit, Zimmer wasn’t content to keep repeating ineffective play. He tried to create pressure by sending Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith on plenty of blitzes. Zimmer also used a rotation of linemen, resulting in all eight d-linemen seeing significant snaps:
- Ifeadi Odenigbo – 60 Snaps
- Jaleel Johnson – 57 Snaps
- Shamar Stephen – 52 Snaps
- Yannick Ngakoue – 44 Snaps
- Armon Watts – 37 Snaps
- Jalyn Holmes – 30 Snaps
- Eddie Yarbrough – 22 Snaps
- Hercules Mata’afa – 10 Snaps
Pro Football Focus gives Stephen the strongest grade out of these linemen. Even still, Stephen only scored a mere 53.0 in PFF’s grading system. Stephen finished last season with an overall grade of 58.2, 92nd overall in PFF’s rankings. The entire d-line played worse than Stephen’s 92nd overall performance from 2019.
PFF’s grading system isn’t the only way of measuring a player’s performance, but it does underscore what was evident on Sunday. The defensive line played horrible, and they’ll need to improve quickly if they’re interested in competing in the NFC.
Looking Ahead: The Indianapolis Colts
The Indianapolis Colts present a good opportunity for the Vikings to bounce back. True, their defense has some legitimate talent, and Philip Rivers may end up experiencing a resurgence. Even still, the Colts are a team that the Vikings should beat. Minnesota had a lot of success against Rivers last season. There is no guarantee they’ll be able to replicate this success, but they’ll likely find it easier defending Rivers than Rodgers. The d-line faces a difficult test. Led by Quenton Nelson, the Indianapolis offensive line is among the best in the league. If they aren’t careful, Minnesota’s d-line will get bullied.
It’s important that the Vikings get ahead early. Doing so will force the Colts to become more one-dimensional on offense. Making their offense predictable will only help the pass rush. It’s also important for the Vikings to disrupt the Indianapolis receivers. Adams got open at will on Sunday. It’s tough to get home when a QB is throwing the ball in two seconds. The Minnesota Vikings formula for success, then, must involve tighter coverage, finding an effective d-line rotation, and getting the offense into an early rhythm. In other words, the Vikings have their hands full getting ready for Sunday.