MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The long-sturdy, often-dominant Minnesota Vikings defense directed by head coach Mike Zimmer endured enough losses from the usual lineup that 2020 was bound to be a year of transition.
Preseason suggestions that this group might struggle were mostly met with defiance and confidence from coaches and players, and, really, who could argue with their pedigree? Since Zimmer's arrival in 2014, the Vikings had routinely fielded a top-five defense in the league by just about any statistical or anecdotal measure.
This year, they've veered well off track. First came the salary-cap-prompted departures of five starters. Then their health began to take a hit. Now they're undermanned at best, entering their bye week with a 1-5 record and plenty of reason to enter full rebuild mode after a 40-23 defeat by the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
“It’s frustrating. We obviously want to keep taking steps forward. We know we have the talent and ability, so we just have to keep plugging away,” safety Anthony Harris said.
Harris and fellow safety Harrison Smith have been far from perfect, but one of the league's best back-end tandems has had its hands full this fall.
Rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler started at the base cornerbacks for the third straight game, as injuries had Holton Hill and Kris Boyd on the inactive list. Mike Hughes, who'd been entering in the nickel defense and taking one of the outside spots with Gladney sliding inside to the slot, reinjured his neck in the second quarter. That left Harrison Hand, another rookie, as the only other available cornerback against Matt Ryan and the Falcons.
“We’ve been doing that pretty much all season, learning on the fly,” Harris said. “Stepping out on the field, it’s just about going to play, playing with supreme confidence, not worrying about the rest.”
Ryan passed for 371 yards and four touchdowns, two to seven-time Pro Bowl pick Julio Jones. The first score came on third-and-11 from the Minnesota 20, after the first of three interceptions thrown by Kirk Cousins gave the Falcons a short field. Dantzler got caught in an unfavorable position, allowing Jones to obtain outside leverage on him despite Smith lurking to his inside for help.
Jones tacked on a 40-yard touchdown in the third quarter, when Ryan was chased from the pocket on fourth-and-3 and floated a short throw to Jones in the split-second after Gladney crept forward toward the scrambling quarterback. The first-round draft pick slipped as he realized his mistake and tried to retreat, but Jones was already racing toward the end zone.
“I still think they’re going to be good players. It’s been a lot of learning by fire,” Zimmer said, adding: “We’ve just got to continue to get out there and compete and get that mindset.”
Jones had eight receptions for 137 yards as Ryan became the third 300-yard passer against the Vikings in six games this season.
“We respect their talents, but at the same time we take pride in our craft and the ability that we have,” Harris said. “To give up big plays is not what you want to do. It’s not the identity that we try to play with.”
This glaring inexperience in the secondary has been the headline of 2020 for the defense, if not the entire team, after cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander signed elsewhere in March. There's more to the story than that, though.
Linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter, with six Pro Bowl selections between them, are both on injured reserve. Barr is done for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Hunter might be too, mulling how to handle a neck injury suffered at the beginning of training camp.
Nose tackle Linval Joseph and defensive end Everson Griffen, both now playing elsewhere due to salary cap constraints, have been badly missed on the line after holding vital roles in the lineup since Zimmer's first year, 2014. Michael Pierce, who was signed to replace Joseph, opted out of the season to preserve his health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we’ve got a bunch of great competitors and great dudes who want to win,” Smith said on Friday. “It’s not like people need that tough love, but you need to know how it is and that’s the reality of this profession. Especially playing defense these days. It’s hard. Accept it as that and rise to the occasion. Because when you win, it makes it that much better. I think once you get a taste of that winning you see how it’s infectious and how it rolls and how guys come together and play off one another and things like that. That’s when you can really start doing some good things.”
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