Mike Zimmer watched his young, talent-deficient defense get gashed on a weekly basis last year and thought to himself "never again."
The 2020 Vikings finished with a disappointing 7-9 record, falling short of the playoffs for the fourth time in Zimmer's seven-year tenure, in large part due to a defense that finished 27th in yards against and 29th in scoring. The team's veteran head coach — who is known for his innovation and success on that side of the ball — called it "the worst defense" he's ever had.
Things like Aaron Rodgers dropping 43 points on the Vikings in the season opener and the Saints racking up nearly 600 yards of offense on Christmas Day must've just eaten at Zimmer down to his core. So, with the help of GM Rick Spielman, he decided to do something about it this offseason. A lot of somethings, in fact.
The Vikings were always going to improve defensively in 2021, simply by getting Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, and Michael Pierce back, along with the development of some young players. But that wasn't nearly enough for Zimmer to feel confident in his team returning to being a top-tier defense in the NFL like they were from 2015-19. He wanted more.
When free agency started in March, the Vikings went out and signed two of the top defensive players on the market in Dalvin Tomlinson and Patrick Peterson. That gave the roster another elite run-stuffer and a motivated veteran corner who might be a future Hall of Famer. Minnesota also made a couple depth pickups on defense in defensive end Stephen Weatherly and linebacker Nick Vigil.
Some people might feel content with their defense after those moves. Not Zimmer and Spielman. After the market died down, the Vikings landed two more defensive backs — Xavier Woods and Mackensie Alexander — in late March for a combined cap hit of less than $3 million. The starting defense, at least on paper, was set. Zimmer was fired up about his new-look unit after taking the team's failure in 2020 hard.
But once again, the Vikings weren't done. Despite having a solid cornerback room, they signed talented veteran Bashaud Breeland in early June. And despite having two stout defensive tackles penciled in as starters, they put the cherry on top of their offseason by landing Sheldon Richardson this week. Sensing the opportunity to land dynamic players at bargain prices to boost their depth late in the offseason, they didn't hesitate. It helps that those players, like the free agents who signed before them, are aware of Zimmer's reputation and can see what the Vikings are building.
All of a sudden, this defense is loaded. Breeland and Richardson are excellent players, and neither one will enter training camp as a starter. If the Vikings don't live up to expectations in 2021, it almost certainly won't be due to a lack of defensive talent.
This is a critical season for Zimmer and the Vikings, so they're going all in on what he knows best. Maybe it's an over-correction, as questions about the offense and special teams remain, but the offense wasn't the issue last year. The defense, which Zimmer takes so much pride in, was the problem. He's making sure that won't be the case in 2021.
Heading into this season, questions about Zimmer's job security are all over the place. He was recently given the fifth-best odds to be the first coach fired this year. Granted, that's all speculation, but there are legitimate reasons to believe Zimmer's job is on the line this year if the results don't come. With just two playoff wins in seven years, time is not on his side. Coaches don't last this long in the NFL without sustained success and Super Bowl appearances. Missing the playoffs two years in a row for the first time would presumably spell the end of the Zimmer era.
He knows that. So, with his back against the proverbial wall, Zimmer is going all in on defense. He's loading up the roster and preparing to flex his muscles as a hands-on coach and defensive architect. If it works out — and improvements occur elsewhere, particularly on the offensive line and special teams — the Vikings might be a Super Bowl contender.
If it doesn't, at least Zimmer will have done it his way.
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