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Zulgad: No easy fix: Mike Zimmer has only himself to blame for Vikings’ defensive struggles

Mike Zimmer’s angst about another disappointing offensive effort led the Vikings coach to fire first-year offensive coordinator John DeFilippo last December following a Week 14 Monday night loss in Seattle. DeFilippo hadn’t come close to getting the most out of quarterback Kirk Cousins and Zimmer had grown tired of seeing his team too frequently abandon the run game.

A week shy of one year later, Zimmer found himself in a familiar position on Monday. The Vikings returned home again from a prime-time loss in Seattle — this time a 37-30 setback — with the coach undoubtedly feeling frustrated after his team fell to 8-4 and lost a chance to remain even with Green Bay in the NFC North.

The difference this time is Zimmer’s problem isn’t on offensive side of the ball. Cousins put together a solid performance against the Seahawks, completing 22 of 38 passes for 276 yards with two touchdowns and an interception of a ball that wide receiver Stefon Diggs could not hold onto.

It is now his defense that is letting Zimmer down and he isn’t going to fire the head of that unit considering it is his baby. Zimmer was hired in 2014 to take over a team that needed a significant upgrade defensively. A longtime and successful coordinator, Zimmer had great success molding that side of the ball into one of the best in the league in his first opportunity as an NFL coach.

But that defense hasn’t looked the same this season. That was the case on Monday night as the Seahawks employed an extra offensive lineman for much of the game and rushed for 218 yards on 43 carries and two touchdowns. It marked only the fourth time since Zimmer’s arrival that an opponent has rushed for 200 yards against the Vikings. That wasn’t the only issue. Quarterback Russell Wilson also completed a 60-yard touchdown pass to David Moore late in the third quarter as cornerback Xavier Rhodes watched helplessly.

Rhodes  was frustrated that he didn’t get help from safety Harrison Smith on the play, but to place the blame on anyone but Rhodes would have been foolish. If there is a player who serves as the primary example of the Vikings’ defensive decline it is Rhodes. Once one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, the 29-year-old has become a liability.

The question isn’t whether opposing quarterbacks will go after Rhodes each week, it’s when they will go after him and will they do it for large chunks of yards or short ones? Or both?

Rhodes not only got beat on the touchdown, he also was called for a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty for hitting Seattle running back Chris Carson after he was out of bounds early in the third quarter. That gave the Seahawks a first-and-10 at the Vikings 30 instead of making it 2-and-11 at the Vikings 45. Seattle scored on the drive to tie the score at 17.

Still, Zimmer’s loyalty to playing Rhodes doesn’t seem to waver. He was benched briefly after giving up the touchdown pass as he exchanged words with Zimmer on the sideline and then slammed his helmet but even then got back into the game.

A year ago, the Vikings finished in the top five in the NFL in total defense and passing defense and in the top 10 in scoring defense. This season they are 16th in total defense, giving up 347.4 yards per game; 20th against the pass (242.9); 15th against the rush (104.5); and 11th in scoring defense (20.2).

Despite the struggles of the run defense on Monday, it’s the Vikings work against the pass that has caused Zimmer the most concern. Long considered one of the top minds in the game when it comes to defensive backs, and a guy who turned Rhodes into a Pro Bowl player, the Vikings simply don’t have answers in the secondary this season.

The Vikings entered their bye week with a thrilling 27-23 victory over Denver at U.S. Bank Stadium, but it could not be ignored that a not-very-good Broncos team took a 20-0 halftime lead and the Vikings offense was forced to lead the rally. Quarterback Brandon Allen, who has since been benched, threw for 240 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings and directed a drive late in the fourth quarter that finally stalled at the Minnesota 4-yard line.

The thought was that Zimmer would spend much of the Vikings’ off week trying to formulate a plan to help Rhodes and his secondary and would at least come up with a few wrinkles. Wilson and the Seahawks quickly identified the Vikings’ plan to slow their passing game and attacked elsewhere. “They kept playing two high shell, just super deep,” Wilson said. “They didn’t want any shots thrown on them. So we said, OK, and we’ll just run it and do what we do really well.”

So what’s Zimmer’s answer now? The Vikings, who don’t have a victory this season over a team that is above .500, have games against Detroit, Green Bay and Chicago and at the Los Angeles Chargers remaining on their schedule. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense will provide a test but Minnesota should be able to beat the Lions’ David Blough, the Bears’ Mitchell Trubisky and an aging Philip Rivers, who reportedly soon could be benched.

Cousins and the offense — a group that was supposed to play a supporting role to the defense’s starring one — can probably do enough to win three of those games.

This means the Viking are likely to make the playoffs as the sixth and final wild card seed in the NFC, unless they collapse or the Packers fall apart and hand them the division title. But once you get into the postseason, especially playing on the road, the Vikings are going to need their once-dominant defense to re-emerge. The odds of that happening seem to be a long shot unless Zimmer can find some magic fix.

The problem is he tried on Monday night in Seattle and, in doing so, created a new weakness.


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