Pertinent Purple Topics: Will the Vikings Run Defense Improve?

Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Armon Watts (96) warms up before the game against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Blewett-USA TODAY Sports

Even though it’s a passing league, it’s difficult to win without a strong run defense. Think of it this way: if a team can both run and pass, it’ll be a long day. For this reason, it still makes an awful lot of sense to ensure the opposition has a really difficult time finding room on the ground. The Vikings run defense should thus be a top priority heading into the season.

Last year, things went poorly for the run defense. In fairness to Mike Zimmer, some of the circumstances were less than ideal. It can be pretty illuminating to take a quick glance at the basic facts for the Vikings’ season. Michael Pierce, a great NT, only got in on 8 games; Danielle Hunter was in for 7. Anthony Barr had 11 games, Everson Griffen had 9 games, and Patrick Peterson had 13 games. Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks each missed a couple games; Dalvin Tomlinson missed 1. My point, folks, is that things weren’t always easy.

The counterpoint is that all kinds of teams had all kinds of challenges. Several did much better than Minnesota. Take Denver, for instance. Injuries really decimated their front seven and yet Vic Fangio and Ed Donatell were able to get their team to perform really well. The Broncos allowed the 15th most yards on the ground, far from dominant but a touch above average. Overall, Denver was third best in the league when it comes to points against and eighth best for yards allowed.

The hope is that Donatell can get the Vikings’ 2022 run defense to finish much closer to the Broncos’ 2021 run defense. In the end, teams averaged 130.7 yards per game on the ground against Minnesota.

Leading the charge up front will be Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips, and Armon Watts. Those three won’t dominate the headlines since none are at an Aaron Donald or Cameron Heyward level. Nevertheless, they’ll quietly form an impressive trio in the middle of the Vikings defense. Their task will be to ensure they’re consistently disruptive. That means filling gaps, getting penetration, occupying blockers, and (obviously) making plays on the ball carrier.

Both Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter will need to be able to set the edge. If they can’t corral runners when it’s their job to maintain contain, then the defense will have issues. Jordan Hicks and Eric Kendricks will also need to demonstrate some sideline-to-sideline quickness. Otherwise, the DBs will need to be able to rally for a tackle. Collectively, the secondary will commonly be tasked with stepping up to tackle a ball carrier short of the sticks. The short area of the field is commonly left open in this defense, so a secondary that can’t step up for a tackle is an issue.

I say all that to say this: it truly will take a full-team effort to improve the Vikings run defense. We always think of the massive, rugged guys in the middle of the defense as the run stuffers. While it’s true that run defense often begins at DT, it can’t end there. Donatell will be asking all eleven defenders to shut down the run. The talent is there to be much improved in 2022.

Editor’s Note: This series considers a variety of questions that Minnesota will be looking to answer during training camp and the preseason. The point is simply to provide concise discussions of pertinent purple topics. We’ll do one per day leading up to training camp, which begins on July 24th.