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Vikings’ defense has a positively offensive showing in embarrassing loss to New Orleans

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New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) carries against Minnesota Vikings cornerback Jeff Gladney (20) and cornerback Cameron Dantzler (27) in the first half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Mike Zimmer seemed to be conflicted  following the Vikings’ embarrassing 52-33 loss to the Saints on Friday in New Orleans. On one hand, you could tell the normally blunt coach wanted to rip into a defense that had given up its most points in a game since 1963. “(We) couldn’t stop the run, didn’t cover well, couldn’t get any pressure on the quarterback, didn’t tackle,” Zimmer said, running through the extensive list of ineptitude. “Really disappointed defensively. (You’ve) got to work really hard to give up 52.”

But you could tell that if Zimmer went after the defense too much, he would be, in essence, calling himself out, and that’s probably a bad idea. Zimmer has run the unit since he arrived in Minnesota in 2014 and is known as one of the better defensive coaches in the NFL. He was hired primarily because the Vikings felt he could stop high-flying offenses, not watch his team hemorrhage points against them.

That is why shortly after acknowledging that “this is a bad defense … the worst one I’ve ever had,” Zimmer made sure to point out just how many pieces were missing from his pride and joy.

“If you look at the playoff game last year (when the Vikings upset the Saints in New Orleans), and you look at the guys that were playing in that game and the guys that were playing today, it’s completely, 100 percent different,” Zimmer said after his team was officially eliminated from the NFC playoff race. ” … We’ve got to get (defensive end Danielle) Hunter back, we’ve got to get (nose tackle Michael) Pierce here, we’ve got to get (linebackers Anthony) Barr, (Eric) Kendricks, the Pro Bowl, the good players that we have (back).

“We lost another corner again today. And, honest, I’m not trying to make excuses, it was embarrassing today, but we’re missing four defensive linemen, we’re missing a safety, we’re missing three corners, we’re missing six linebackers, I believe, from when we started. We’re just a little undermanned. That’s still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey, they got to play.”

Zimmer isn’t wrong. The Vikings are missing some key players, including Pierce, who signed as a free agent last March but opted out before the season because of concerns about COVID-19. Piece was expected to replace Linval Joseph at nose tackle. Instead, Zimmer has been starting Shamar Stephen at that spot. Stephen and starting defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson should both be backups.

The Vikings also had to start Blake Lynch and played Hardy Nickerson regularly at linebacker because Kendricks and backups Troy Dye and Todd Davis were out.

But none of this excuses what happened on Friday. Drew Brees, in his second game back after sitting out because of 11 (yes, 11) broken ribs, has little arm strength left and is no longer a dominant quarterback. The Vikings intercepted him twice but he far too often had open receivers who easily picked up big yards. And a game after David Montgomery rushed for 146 yards and the Bears ran for 199 as a team in a victory over the Vikings, Minnesota gave up 155 yards and six (yes, six) touchdowns to Alvin Kamara. The Saints rushed for 264 yards as a team en route to accumulating 583 yards (the most given up by the Vikings in franchise history) and 36 first downs.

The Saints’ drive chart went like this: Touchdown, touchdown, field goal, interception, touchdown, interception, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, end of game.

If the roles had been reversed and this had been Zimmer’s offense putting forth a complete clunker, we have a feeling the coach wouldn’t have hesitated to share his thoughts on the performance, no matter how shorthanded the offense might have been. But this was Zimmer’s pride and joy — and a unit that is co-coordinated by his son, Adam — putting forth one of the worst efforts in Vikings’ history and thus there was clearly an attempt to tone down the anger.

What might have been most surprising about the Vikings’ defensive effort was the atrocious day that seemed to be turned in by veteran safety Anthony Harris. Harris is playing this season under the franchise tag (one-year, $11.4 million) and is hoping to get a lucrative multiyear deal in 2021. However, he has had an underwhelming season and on Friday appeared to miss several potential tackles. Cornerback Jeff Gladney, a rookie first-round pick who has shown development, also seemed to miss too many tackles. It’s one thing for a third-string player on defense to look inept, but Harris and Gladney have no excuses.

“I don’t think being young has got anything to do with tackling,” Zimmer said. “They manhandled us up front pretty well but we didn’t tackle. Then when we had a chance, 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.”

Much better.

Zimmer announced before this season that “I’ve never had a bad defense, ever. So I don’t anticipate that changing.” The Vikings entered Friday ranked 25th in the NFL in points allowed, giving up 27.7 per game. That number skyrocketed to 29.3 points after this latest debacle, dropping the Vikings to 28th. Minnesota’s offense is a respectable 10th in the NFL with 393 points, but the Vikings are a minus-47 in point differential because the defense has been so poor.

Even Zimmer had to acknowledge this is the worst defense he has coached. And even shorthanded, there was no excuse for a performance that pathetic.