Minnesota’s Playoff Chances May Depend on A Slumping Pass Rush

Vikings Defense
Oct 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings defensive end D.J. Wonnum (98) and defensive end Danielle Hunter (99) celebrates a sack of Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff (not pictured) during the fourth quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota’s playoff chances will improve dramatically if their pass rush can be elite. The past pair of regular season games have only resulted in 2 sacks for the purple and gold.

I’m of the belief that there’s no such thing as too many pass rushers. Like Mike Zimmer and his corners, my motto is that a GM should always say “just one more” when it comes to players who can get after the QB. Teams want to pass the ball, so defenses should load up on players who can hinder that goal.

During the offseason, I wrote a few pieces articulating this perspective. Take a look at a March piece where there is an argument in favor of adding Justin Houston:

Otherwise, it’s notable who is still available. Jadeveon Clowney, Jerry Hughes, Justin Houston, Derek Barnett, Arden Key, and Melvin Ingram III are all still out there. The team, of course, can’t be in the running for all of these players, but it wouldn’t be shocking to learn they’re flirting with at least one or two.

Take, for instance, Justin Houston. I get that he’s older, but he’s still effective. He has experience in a 3-4, and he put forth a rock solid 77.9 PFF grade over 577 snaps last season. Bringing him aboard would be for him to serve as the team’s #3 pass rusher, someone who can create havoc on obvious passing downs and in critical moments of the game.

In the end, Houston went to the Baltimore Ravens, playing 397 snaps (394 of which came along the DL). He finished the year with 9.5 sacks and 7 TFLs. He had 21 tackles and 17 QB hits. Would the Vikings have benefited from a veteran pass rusher who can put up really impressive numbers in limited snaps?

His 2022 cap hit is a relatively modest $3.5 million.

Obviously, the Vikings were in a tough financial position. Resources are finite, a truth that even applies to the NFL and its oodles of money. Perhaps the deal for Houston was prohibitive.

Kwesi Adofo-Mensah brought Za’Darius Smith aboard to partner with Danielle Hunter, which ended up being a great decision.

For the most part, the Smith/Hunter duo has been a success. They’re the team’s top two pass rushers, combining for 20.5 sacks for the season. Hunter leads the way with 10.5 and Smith is second with 10. The next best are D.J. Wonnum and Patrick Jones II, both of whom have 4 sacks.

Jul 29, 2022; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Vikings outside linebackers Danielle Hunter (99) and Za’Darius Smith. Mandatory Credit: Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports.

As we all know, the Vikings’ defense hasn’t been good enough in the 2022 season. At various points, there has been discussion of how to fix things. One of the best theories, as far as I can tell, is to ignite a truly sensational pass rush. After all, Hunter and Smith are excellent players. Partnering them with talented interior defenders like Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips, and Khyiris Tonga open the possibility of creating a pile of pressure.

Folks, it’s hard to complete passes if one is under constant duress.

While there have been some strong moments from the pass rush, it’s safe to say that the team could still have benefited from more pressure. A third option to go alongside Hunter and Smith could have really made the defense difficult to overcome.

One of the other names in the above quote is Jerry Hughes. The veteran ended up signing with the Texans; it was a two-year deal that came with a $3.75 million cap hit in 2022 and $6.25 million in the upcoming season. Hughes finished the season 40th in the PFF edge rusher rankings, piling up 9 sacks and 10 TFLs.

Oh, and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – who was considered alongside Houston and Hughes in a different piece – finished the year as the 29th-ranked edge rusher on PFF. He had 5 sacks and 9 TFLs for the year. The Texans signed him to a 1-year, $3.25 million deal last offseason.

In the end, it makes very little sense dwelling too much on the decisions that were and weren’t made. After all, there’s simply no way that a team can capitalize on every free agent opportunity. Nevertheless, it’s fair to be concerned about the defense heading into the playoffs, especially since Smith only has a half sack from Week 11 onward. Another weapon in the pass rush arsenal would certainly be welcome this time of the year.

Hunter, Smith, and the rest of the Vikings’ pass rush get a shot at pushing this team toward the Super Bowl on Sunday, January 15 at 3:30 CST.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference and Over the Cap helped with this piece.