The Case for Keeping Ed Donatell in 2023

For a little while, Vikings fans and writers have been discussing a change at defensive coordinator. Ed Donatell – who comes from Vic Fangio’s tutelage – was supposed to revitalize the defense. Instead, that side of the ball has been bland and predictable, so keeping Ed Donatell hasn’t been at the forefront of people’s minds.

Overall, the discussion of the Vikings defense has been relatively critical. We’ve seen them get charged with “failing by design,” which is to say nothing of the press conference where he was asked several times about the merits of his scheme. Needing to defend the defensive philosophy when the majority of the year is behind us isn’t a good look.

Of course, we all remember the unfortunate record that Minnesota set earlier this season: the 5-straight games of allowing more than 400 yards. Things got pretty bad for the Vikings defense in the final two years with Mike Zimmer, but his defenses never accomplished that feat.

Keeping Ed Donatell

With all that being said, why the discussion of keeping Ed Donatell?

Well, the first thing I’ll say is that writers and fans ought to be considerably slower when it comes to making proclamations about who should stay or go. At the end of the day, finding success as an NFL DC is challenging, and the vast majority of us don’t understand all the complexities of the position.

A Look at the Vikings Defensive Woes
May 15, 2021; Englewood, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports.

More persuasive, though, are some reasons that go beyond merely acknowledging the challenge that is the NFL.

First, let’s remember that Donatell has inherited a lot of defenders from Zimmer’s teams. For a long time, the Vikings used a Zimmer scheme; at their best, it was one of the best defenses in the NFL. In fact, the 2017 season featured them as the best in the NFL. Nevertheless, it’s no guarantee that these players can succeed in a different system.

Players like Eric Kendricks, Dalvin Tomlinson, James Lynch, D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones, Cameron Dantzler, Camryn Bynum, Josh Metellus, Kris Boyd, and Troy Dye were all brought in with a different system in mind. The roster was made in Zimmer’s image; Donatell has needed to fit these players into his system.

Might another round of free agency and drafting make a difference?

During the draft, there was a deliberate effort to bring in more defensive talent. The first pick went toward safety Lewis Cine and the next pick went toward corner Andrew Booth Jr. In fact, 5 of the initial 6 picks were used on defense. The issue? These draft picks haven’t made too much of a difference, and much of that is due to injury (Akayleb Evans has also battled injuries). Currently, third-rounder Brian Asamoah looks like the main one to make a sizable difference for the 2022 Vikings.

Moreover, it’s worth remembering that a lot of individual players have been doing well. Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith are both among the top 12 for PFF edge rushers. Patrick Peterson is in the top 10 at corner. Dalvin Tomlinson is coming in at 15th for DTs and Duke Shelley – who deserves a ton of credit – is coming at 14th among corners.

A lot of the players have been doing good things even as the defense as a whole has been struggling. In some ways, then, we might foresee some improvement for Donatell and the Vikings defense with another year to work together. Familiarity in the 3-4 could allow the individuals to morph into a cohesive unit, one where the great play from singular players coalesces into great play from the defense as a whole.

For whatever it’s worth, there is some precedent for a Donatell defense taking a huge step forward. When he was the DC in Denver in 2020, the Broncos allowed an average of 27.9 points per game, which was 25th in the NFL. In 2021, those numbers improved significantly: 18.9 points against per game for a 3rd overall ranking.

Obviously, the situations are different and previous success does little to guarantee future success. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that Donatell has been part of a dramatic turn around before.

The Coming Challenge

The challenge that is immediately in front of Minnesota is consecutive road games against Green Bay and Chicago. The case for keeping Ed Donatell will be impacted by these games.

Nov 27, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during warmups against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings go into Week 17 with the 28th defense in the NFL by allowing an average of 24.9 points per game. They have allowed the second-most yards against in the league (behind only the Detroit Lions). If we shrink things down to just passing yards, Minnesota comes second last; the Titans have played one more game and occupy the 32nd spot.

Clearly, the Donatell defense leaves a little something to be desired.

During the offseason, the question shouldn’t be one that dwells on the 2022 season. On the contrary, the priority needs to be finding success in 2023. Which defensive coordinator will give this team the best shot at competing for a Super Bowl in the upcoming year? If the answer is Donatell, then he should be the one who has the job.

Restoring confidence among the fans won’t be an easy task. Minnesota’s fans have seen great defenses and, indeed, they appreciate great defense. That being said, a strong effort in Week 17 would be a good place to start. Finding a way to confuse and confound Rodgers – a future Hall of Famer – would go a long way in warming purple hearts far and wide.

And, perhaps, even a deep playoff run could convince some that another year running this 3-4, 2-high defense may not be a bad thing.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.