- Covered the 49ers, Raiders and Warriors for the San Jose Mercury News. She joined ESPN in 2017.
MINNEAPOLIS — Back in training camp, as the Minnesota Vikings put their defensive rebuild into action, Mike Zimmer didn’t anticipate a drop-off for his once-vaunted unit in spite of how many new faces he saw around him.
“I’ve never had a bad defense — ever,” the Vikings coach said in August. “So I don’t anticipate that changing.”
The ups and downs because of injuries, youth and other circumstances caused the Vikings to stumble from their pedestal in 2020, but a 52-33 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Day finally forced Zimmer to change his tune.
“Yeah, this is a bad defense,” Zimmer said after the game. “Worst one I’ve ever had.”
The 52 points allowed, including six touchdowns by Saints running back Alvin Kamara, were the most given up by the Vikings since they let the St. Louis Cardinals score 56 in October 1963, two years after the franchise took the field for the first time.
“Really disappointed defensively,” Zimmer said. “You’ve gotta work really hard to give up 52.”
Entering Week 16, the Vikings had a 4% chance to make the postseason so long as they won their final two games against New Orleans and Detroit in addition to Arizona losing its final two games and Chicago losing one of its remaining two. The loss to the Saints puts Minnesota out of postseason contention and guarantees the Vikings (6-9) will finish the year with a losing record.
With New Orleans missing three of its top four receivers Friday, the Saints committed to running the ball with Kamara, who set career highs in rushing attempts (22), rushing yards (155) and touchdowns (6). Taysom Hill also ran in a short touchdown to give the Saints a franchise-record seven rushing scores.
According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Kamara scored on all five of his rushes when facing eight or more defenders in the box. Any time the Vikings had seven or fewer defenders in the box, Kamara averaged 7.8 yards per rush, the third-highest mark by a player this season with a minimum of 15 rushes.
Tackling was an issue for a defense that was down three linebackers (Eric Kendricks, Todd Davis and Troy Dye) entering the game. In his four previous meetings against the Vikings, Kamara never rushed for more than 45 yards (3.46 yards per carry on 13 rushes). On Friday, he more than tripled that amount facing a defense without All-Pro Kendricks and perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr.
But depth issues and inexperience were not the catalyst for Minnesota allowing 121 yards after contact on rushes and receptions, according to Zimmer, their most in a game since 2016.
“No, I don’t think being young has got anything to do with tackling,” Zimmer said. “They manhandled us up front pretty well with the front guys and linebackers, but we didn’t tackle. When we had chances, we didn’t cover very well today. Defensive backs came off the receivers. It was disappointing.
“We’re a little undermanned, but they should play better than that. Really it wasn’t so much the six touchdowns, it’s more that they just mashed us up front. We couldn’t slow them down. It would be 8-yard gain, 7-yard gain. The first touchdown we fitted wrong with the linebackers, I believe. It was one of those kind of days.”
The Vikings also allowed Drew Brees to throw for 311 yards only two games after the quarterback returned from injury.
Five days earlier, Minnesota gave up 199 yards rushing to David Montgomery and the Bears in a defeat that put the Vikings in must-win territory for the remainder of the season. Zimmer said he didn’t foresee a follow-up performance like Friday’s playing out in practice, but he noted little change between his defense’s performance in Week 15 and five days later.
“I saw it last week in the last game, too,” the coach said.
While the Vikings own one of the NFL’s worst run defenses, their inability to pressure opposing quarterbacks also ranks at the bottom of the NFL. Minnesota generated only one pressure on Brees, the fewest by any team in a game since 2016. On the season, the Vikings have generated pressure on 23.3% of dropbacks, which ranks 30th.
The storyline for Minnesota’s 2020 defense will include a mass exodus of nine players in free agency, including five starters, an opt-out by nose tackle Michael Pierce, season-ending injuries to the likes of Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr and Mike Hughes, and a handful of rookies and young players who were forced to play significant roles they weren’t ready for.
With the 2020 season over save for one meaningless game at Detroit in Week 17, how might the Vikings turn things around for next season?
“We’ve got to get Hunter back, we’ve got to get Pierce here, we’ve got to get Barr, Kendricks, Pro Bowl players, good players that we have, they need to be back, and then we lost another corner again today,” Zimmer said. “If you go back, and honest, I’m not trying to make excuses, it was embarrassing today. We’re missing four defensive linemen, we’re missing a safety, we’re missing three corners, we’re missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started. We’re just a little undermanned. That’s still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey, they’ve got to play.”
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