EAGAN. — Aside from the return of Anthony Barr, the Minnesota Vikings defense has had a quiet offseason.
Pass rusher Everson Griffen restructured his contract, safety Anthony Harris signed his RFA tender and Sheldon Richardson left for pastures that had more money available.
While it may lack juicy headlines, the defense does have a number of intriguing storylines that we will be watching as the Vikings head into camp. At his press conference at Tuesday’s OTA session, head coach Mike Zimmer talked about a number of angles on the defensive side, including Mike Hughes’ status, Danielle Hunter’s personality and Zimmer’s experiments during OTAs.
Last season the Vikings defense struggled at times early in the season, giving up a surprising number of big plays to Buffalo and allowing the Rams to put up 38 points in a national TV loss. Zimmer adapted on the fly and turned things around defensively, guiding his team to the fourth best yards against in the NFL. The Vikings’ head coach has said that he wants to get even more creative this offseason. He told a story Tuesday about calling an early meeting to give something on defense a try. Zimmer said:
“I really love the spring. The coaches don’t particularly like it when I go away and I start watching tape by myself. The other day I was coming back, after Memorial Day I guess it was, and I called a defensive meeting at 6:30 in the morning when I was on the plane because I didn’t like how something was looking. But some of the things we’re doing because I just feel like the way the offenses are moving now in this league and the things they’re trying to do, they’re trying to scheme you, so I think part of that is that we always try to stay one step ahead of things. Now’s the time to look at things, get practice at it, whether it’s a different technique or a different personnel group or a different alignment, different blitzes, pressures, things like that.”
A few of the noticeable alterations to the defense in 2018 included using Jayron Kearse in a “big nickel” package, using three-man fronts at times on third downs and ramping up zone blitzes in key situations rather than the double-A gap blitzes Zimmer was known for earlier in his tenure with the Vikings.
The Vikings have the quietest superstar in the NFL in Danielle Hunter. He’s picked up 34 sacks in his last 48 games, including a career high 14.5 in 2018. Yet he’s rarely mentioned with the Khalil Macks and Von Millers of the league.
Zimmer said that Hunter’s confidence has continued to grow year after year.
“Danielle is a guy that, like some of the other players I’ve had in the past, he never wants to make a mistake but what’s allowed him to really flourish in the things that he’s doing is he’s not worried about making mistakes really anymore. Now there’s things that until he gets comfortable with it that we’re doing with him that he’ll be a little apprehensive. In the past, he would always, ‘Okay, I got to make sure I do this.’ Now, if he makes a mistake, he’s going to make it full speed, correct it and move forward with it. You obviously see the athletic ability and the bend that he has long arms and the strength and the way that he can slither through openings in the pass game and the run game. It seems much more free to me the way he plays.”
Bigger role for Weatherly?
When Griffen missed five games last season, Stephen Weatherly took his place as the starting defensive end. He finished the year with 27 QB pressures (per PFF) and three sacks in 307 pass rushing snaps. It was expected that if Griffen was released that Weatherly would take his job. Even with Griffen returning, Zimmer said he expects Weatherly to see more action.
“The thing that Stephen did when he played last year was that he made a lot of plays, he’s improved in a lot of areas. I anticipate that he’ll have a much larger role for us this year as we continue to go forward. He continues to get better every day, you can just see he’s much more confident in everything that he’s doing.”
The question is how the Vikings will accomplish using Weatherly more. Will he take on a Brian Robison third-down rushing role? Will Griffen rush over the guard on third downs and Weatherly off the edge? Could they use Weatherly as an outside linebacker in some situations? Or will Zimmer simply try to rotate D-line more than he has in the past?
Learn the name Mata’afa
At Washington State, Hercules Mata’afa picked up 21 sacks over three seasons. Despite being a sack machine, he went undrafted, likely because he weighed just 252 pounds coming out of college. The Vikings experimented with him at different positions last offseason because he tore his ACL. Mata’afa has returned with more weight and an attitude that has stuck out to Zimmer.
“He’s just a worker. His body lean is extremely low. He’s got great post stuff. He’s still got a long ways to go. Let’s not put him in Canton yet, but he’s doing a nice job with the things we’re asking him to do. He’s got a great attitude. Andre [Patterson] is an unbelievable teacher. I was out here watching today and talking about those things and I said to Linval [Joseph] that Andre’s good. He said he wouldn’t be where he was if it wasn’t for him so a lot of guys feel that way and the more that he can absorb the teaching that Andre giving, the better for him.”
The Vikings cornerback was working on the side field doing rehab for his torn ACL. Zimmer said he wouldn’t be getting on the field during the rest of the OTA and minicamp practices.
“He won’t get any [practice] this spring.”