If the Vikings hadn’t spent the past two offseasons investing significant money in free agency to fix their run defense, Mike Zimmer’s comments after the Vikings’ 14-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday might not have been so surprising.
But after signing nose tackle Michael Pierce and 3-technique Dalvin Tomlinson to contracts worth a combined $48 million, it was fair to expect the Vikings’ run defense would spend 2021 near the top of the NFL.
Four games into the season, it has become obvious that isn’t going to happen.
The latest reminder came as the Browns gained 184 yards on the ground, including 100 from Nick Chubb and 69 from Kareem Hunt. Cleveland entered the game second in the NFL in rushing offense and was first by the time the day was finished. The Browns are averaging 177 yards behind an excellent offensive line.
This is the exact type of challenge Zimmer used to love and something he wouldn’t take any satisfaction in unless his defense prevailed. So how did he react to seeing his defense get run over on Sunday?
“I’m not discouraged one bit about the lack of stopping the run,” he said. “At the end of the day, they scored one touchdown against us.”
That touchdown came on Hunt’s 1-yard run late in the second quarter that helped give Cleveland an 8-7 lead, thanks to a two-point conversion that was set up when the Vikings took a delay of game penalty as the Browns prepared to attempt the extra point. Zimmer is right in that the Vikings’ defense didn’t deserve the majority of the criticism — that goes to a Kirk Cousins and Klint Kubiak-led offense that was cooled off by the Browns’ defense — but to not be discouraged by the run defense means you’re not paying attention.
The Vikings (1-3) have given up more than 100 yards rushing in each of their first four games. The Bengals went for 149 yards in Week 1 with Joe Mixon accounting for 127 of those yards on 29 carries with a touchdown. The Arizona Cardinals had 103 yards in Week 2 and Seattle had 106 yards, including 80 from Chris Carson, in Week 3.
The Vikings’ struggles to stop the Browns on Sunday dropped them four places to 25th (135.5 yards per game) in the NFL in run defense. That’s only two spots better than the Vikings’ finished last season when they surrendered 134.4 yards per game while fielding what Zimmer acknowledged was the worst defense he has ever coached. That was the most average rushing yards the Vikings had given up in Zimmer’s seven seasons and came with Pierce having opted out for the season because of concerns about COVID-19 and Tomlinson still playing for the New York Giants.
Pierce and Tomlinson were both on the field in the first half Sunday, but Pierce missed the second half because of an elbow injury that will require an MRI. The Browns had more success with Pierce playing (98 yards in the first half) than they did when he was out (86 yards).
While Cleveland couldn’t turn their rushing success into many points, to gloss over it appears to be an attempt by Zimmer to convince his bosses that it’s not a big deal. Nobody is buying that — especially when Zimmer’s career has been built on having successful defenses. It’s also worth noting that Zimmer’s former offensive coordinator, Kevin Stefanski, is now coaching a Browns team that held the Vikings to only 65 yards on 23 carries (a 2.8 average).
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The issue with being unable to stop Cleveland on the ground was that so many successful runs enabled the Browns to control the clock in U.S. Bank Stadium. Cleveland ended up winning the time of possession battle 35 minutes, 32 seconds to 24:28. The inability to contain the run also cost the Vikings big near the end of the first half. The Browns were facing a third-and-20 from their own 26 with 40 seconds remaining.
The Browns appeared content to kill the clock when Baker Mayfield handed Hunt the ball, but Hunt quickly realized how much real estate he had in front of him and gained 33 yards to help set up a 48-yard field goal with 2 seconds left to give the Browns an 11-7 lead.
There was a time when the Vikings giving up big rushing yards just didn’t happen. Kevin Williams, who was inducted into the Vikings’ Ring of Honor on Sunday, was part of a run defense that finished first in the NFL in three consecutive seasons (2006-08) and second in 2009. The Williams Wall — Kevin at the 3-technique and Pat Williams at nose tackle — gave up 61.6 yards, 74.1 yards, 76.9 yards and 87.1 yards in those four seasons.
The hope was Pierce and Tomlinson would form their own wall that would make opponents abandon the run. Since that isn’t happening, it’s fair to wonder if the Vikings should have spent their money elsewhere last March instead of investing in Tomlinson. Say, signing a veteran offensive lineman.
“I feel fine about it,” Zimmer said when asked a follow up about his run defense. “You guys worry so much about stats and not about how things look and how things are. We gave up a 30-yard run on (third-and-20) in the two-minute drill. I’m disgusted about that, yeah, but for the most part, there were a lot of good things that were happening today.”
One would hope that even Zimmer wasn’t buying what he was selling.