The Skol Debate: Do We Have Reason to be Concerned about the Vikings Defense?
The Vikings defense has had an underwhelming start to the season. Even still, the team sits at an impressive 4-1, good for 2nd overall in the conference. Clearly, things haven’t gone too poorly, and yet there is a sense that much could still be improved for Minnesota.
The first iteration of The Skol Debate asked the two participants to consider whether the Vikings ought to be considered among the conference’s best teams. We now bring the focus down to the team itself, asking, “do we have reason to be concerned about the Vikings defense?” The same debaters are back, and here is the position they’ll be taking:
The Purple Corner: Josh Frey (Be Concerned)
The Gold Corner: K. Joudry (Be Unconcerned)
Similar to last time, the point isn’t to have a combative debate that descends into bitterness and misrepresenting the other side. Rather, we’re looking to have a productive conversation that can hopefully bring us closer to a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of what’s happening on defense.
What that said, let’s hop into the debate. Decide for yourselves who provides the more persuasive case.
KJ: We find ourselves at another pertinent topic for the Vikings (our first iteration of The Skol Debate featured a back-and-forth on whether Minnesota should be seen as a top team in the NFC). We’re bringing the focus down to just the Vikings. More specifically, we’re wondering about the defense.
I think it’d be safe to say that some Vikings fans haven’t been particularly pleased by how the defense has been performing. Josh, in your mind, should fans be concerned about what they’ve seen so far?
JF: At the very least, I wouldn’t blame anyone for being very frustrated with how the Vikings defense has played in the last four weeks. Particularly this past weekend vs. Chicago, I got very sick of watching Justin Fields lead 10+ play drives against this defense as the Bears found their way back in the game.
Of course, if they continue holding opponents to point totals in the low-20s, the Vikings offense should do enough to win most of their games. Nevertheless, as we speak, the Vikings have sole possession of the NFC North. We should be looking at a deep playoff run from this team, but if they run into a team like Philly or San Francisco, they could find some real problems on the defensive side of the ball.
My question to you is this, Mr. Joudry, do you see any silver linings from this group that indicate there should be improvements when we get back from the bye week?
KJ: The short answer is yes, there are some positives. The long answer is a touch more complicated.
Let’s start with individual players whom we should be excited about. Dalvin Tomlinson, for instance, has been having a sensational year. The veteran defensive tackle is playing exceptionally well, taking on double teams and yet still being very disruptive against both the run and pass. Harrison Phillips, moreover, has been rock-solid. Not elite, but a strong player in the middle.
I’ll admit that I expected quite a bit more from Danielle Hunter (who has 2 sacks) and Za’Darius Smith (who has 3.5 sacks). Coming into the year, I predicted they’d combine for 30 sacks, but their current pace is much closer to just 1 per game between the two. Nevertheless, both are healthy, and there have been some good moments. While I assume both players are still learning about their defensive coordinator’s scheme, perhaps the defensive coordinator is also learning about how to deploy them in his scheme. Ideally, some greater knowledge all around will lead to more productive pass rushers.
The front, in short, still has the potential to be dominant.
As Harrison Smith suggested, we should find encouragement in the simple fact that despite some struggles, Minnesota is winning. They’re at 4-1 even though the defense has been pretty uninspiring. Imagine where this team could be if they figure things out coming out of the bye.
Does that reality change your perspective at all?
JF: I do think players like Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith can pick things up as the year goes on, so I agree with you there. Perhaps you’ve laid out the simple answer here; things get better as the group becomes more familiar with one another. If Minnesota establishes a consistent pass rush with their stars, I’ll feel much more confident in this unit.
With that being said, I couldn’t help but notice that, once again, Minnesota seemed unable to contain a mobile QB. With games against QBs like Kyler Murray, Carson Wentz, Josh Allen, and Daniel Jones coming up in the next couple months, it makes me nervous that this style of QB continues to stump Donatell’s defensive scheme.
Personally, I think this group needs to draw up some more blitzes to keep QBs guessing, and that might help Hunter and Smith break free a few more times. Do you see this as a necessary adjustment, or is there something else that I am missing?
KJ: Yes, the consistent struggles with mobile QBs is indeed a reason for concern. However, we may have seen some willingness to adjust the approach.
During the most recent game, Brian Asamoah got onto the field for the Vikings defense, and he was often relied on to function as a QB spy. In other words, Donatell turned to one of his depth LBs – one who is very fast – with the aim of using that LB to make it harder for the QB to run. Did the plan work perfectly? By no means; after all, Fields had his best game of the year.
Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the willingness to lean into the talent on that defense. There must be a solution to the issue that mobile QBs present. Perhaps that means more Asamoah or even the three-safety looks (but with Josh Metellus as the third safety) that everyone discussed during the offseason. Maybe it means having more defensive linemen on the field to make it harder to step up into the pocket. D.J. Wonnum has certainly done a nice job, and Jonathan Bullard has had some nice moments.
In the end, I guess that’s what brings me back to why I still have some optimism: the defense does have some great talent. Right or wrong, I still think the front can be excellent. I still think Eric Kendricks, Harrison Smith, and Cameron Dantzler are great defenders. Camryn Bynum, Jordan Hicks, and Patrick Peterson can all be rock-solid.
Plus, the team is still in the top half of the NFL in terms of points allowed. There is a lot of room to improve, but there is a lot of potential here.
JF: Everything you stated here is correct. As someone who fell in love with Brian Asamoah’s game during the NFL Draft process, it certainly was exciting to see him take some snaps with the defense.
Personally, I was hoping for Minnesota to overwhelm Chicago on the defensive side of the ball, and the fact that it didn’t happen for much of the game frustrated me. This defense does have exuberant amounts of talent, though, as you stated. Cam Dantzler’s last few games have given people many reasons to be excited about his development, and the defensive front should be terrifying when firing on all cylinders.
Perhaps we can still hold out hope for this unit to become a great group, and until they do, there’s certainly comfort in the fact that the offense had its most complete game of the season on Sunday.
I still feel this team is one of the best in the NFC, and watching some of the other teams play on Sunday confirmed that. If the defense figures things out, this could be a very special season.
KJ: That sounds like a good place to end things. By no means is this a team that has fully arrived, one that has no more room for improvement. However, it’s still a team that is showing good resilience and is one that can ascend higher. If – and a lot hinges on that tiny two-letter word – the defense reaches its potential, the Vikings are going to be a very difficult team to beat.
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