The Vikings had horrible running defenses in the last couple of years. Some of that was a scheme problem. Football is a team game, and everyone has to help in the running game. If someone is out of place because of a personal mistake or someone leaves a running gap open because the defensive play call was the wrong one, it’s hard to stop the run.
Defensive genius Mike Zimmer also allocated his resources to the passing defense. Cover 2, with both safeties playing high, was a common theme because of the struggling cornerbacks. It’s easier to stop the run with a safety in the box.
Just as big of problems were injuries and absent players. Anthony Barr missed all but 13 games in the last two seasons combined. Defensive tackle Michael Pierce was limited to just eight games. He missed the complete 2020 season because he opted out for health reasons and missed half of 2021 with a torn triceps.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter not playing more than seven games throughout the past two seasons didn’t help the running defense. The edge has to be set, and the Vikings didn’t have the personnel to set the edge. The backup defensive ends couldn’t provide help in the running game, and the Vikings were in trouble on any outside rush.
The Vikings brought in a new defensive coordinator, including a scheme change, and some new players. Ed Donatell’s 3-4 defense could change how the Vikings defend the run.
The 2 Studs
Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips are two excellent players. They both are pretty consistent players and usually perform at an above-average level. However, neither has shown the ability to play at a Pro Bowl level. All reports from training camp suggest that the two defensive linemen looked great. Also, they had a dominant performance in limited snaps during the first preseason game.
Phillips was one of the biggest, yet underrated, signings of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s short tenure. The Bills, his former team, had a great defensive line. They could rotate players a lot. Therefore, Phillips only played 55% of their plays last season. In the years before 2021, he even played a lot less — 41% in 2020.
His pass-rushing production, just 1.5 career sacks, is so low because he was primarily used on running-downs. While rushing the passer is not his best attribute, he is expected to be better in that aspect of his game in Minnesota.
The Vikings don’t have that type of defensive line room. Phillips won’t rotate on and off the field every other down and play a lot more snaps, including pass-rushing downs. In training camp, he showed his ability to be a disruptive force. If he can keep that up, the Vikings’ defense will be much better.
Just as important is the continued emergence of Dalvin Tomlinson. He was a big signing in 2021, as he cost the Vikings a fortune in cap space, especially in the coming years, even if he won’t be on the team. The Vikings deferred his cap hit into the future.
Tomlinson played well against the run and the pass in 2021. He is one of the most consistent players in the NFL. Tomlinson couldn’t fix the struggles against the running game, but as previously mentioned, there were some other factors. The defensive player is a safe bet to be a good player for the Vikings in 2022. Not as safe is the depth of the group and the third starter.
Tomlinson and Phillips are such a good duo because they can play nose tackle and defensive end. Offenses will struggle because they can rotate and adjust pre-snap.
The Other 4
After the shocking release of starter Armon Watts, the Vikings traded for Ross Blacklock. He played for the Houston Texans in the past couple of years. The former second-round pick has some upside but the play in previous years wasn’t always great. A change of scenery could help him develop into the player NFL teams saw before the 2020 draft.
Jonathan Bullard had a good training camp and might be the reason for the decision to let Watts go. Bullard is a veteran and will turn 29 years old in October. He appeared in 70 games so far in his career, including 15 starts. The defensive end has the experience of more than 1,600 defensive snaps.
James Lynch is a former college star for Baylor. He has some untapped potential, but it hasn’t translated to the NFL so far. He’s still just 23 years old and is a former unanimous All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. The new 3-4 scheme could open up some things for him.
The final player on the roster is Esezi Otomewo, the former Minnesota Golden Gopher. He played on the edge in college, so there could be some development time. Don’t expect him to make a lot of noise in 2022. However, he has the talent and the physical tools to develop into a contributor for the Vikings along the line.
The Vikings also have Jaylen Twyman and T.J. Smith on the practice squad. They may get elevated in the season if a few players go down with injuries.
The position group has two excellent players at the top. However, the third starter is undecided, and the depth is filled with unproven players and disappointments. One of Blacklock, Lynch, Bullard, and Otomewo must step up.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt