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Zulgad: Harsh reality: Mike Zimmer can’t escape the fact he’s coaching a bad defense

Mike Zimmer
Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer watches during an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)

As the Vikings watched nine players, including five starters, depart from their 2019 defense, there were many who wondered if Mike Zimmer would be able to continue working his magic on that side of the ball. Zimmer had been hired as the Vikings’ coach in 2014, following a season in which Minnesota’s defense had finished last in the NFL in points allowed and second-to-last in yardage surrendered per game en route to a last-place finish (5-10-1) in the NFC North.

General manager Rick Spielman had figured if he couldn’t find a franchise-changing quarterback to guide his offense, he would hire a longtime successful NFL defensive coordinator to stop the quarterbacks who were too often feasting on the Vikings. The Vikings went 7-9 in Zimmer’s first season, finishing 11th in points surrendered and 14th in yards allowed. But as Zimmer brought in more of his type of players, the retooled Vikings defense improved and so did the team’s record.

The Vikings entered this season having finished with a .500 or above record in every season since 2015, having made three playoff appearances and never having been outside the top 10 in points given up. From 2016 to 2018, the Vikings were third, first and fourth in yardage allowed.

That success is likely the reason why about two months ago Zimmer provided Tom Pelissero of NFL Network with a quote he is going to likely regret. “I’ve never had bad defense, ever,” he said. “So I don’t anticipate that changing.”

Three games into the season, Zimmer’s defense isn’t just bad, it’s awful. The Vikings have given up 34 points per game, second-to-last in the NFL; are surrendering 440 yards per game, 30th out of 32 teams; are 30th in passing yards allowed; and 26th in rushing yards allowed. It used to be that teams had to get creative against the Vikings’ defense. These days there is no creativity required and too often success is assured.

The Vikings gave up 43 points in the regular-season opener against the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium, then surrendered 28 in a Week 2 defeat at Indianapolis; and followed that up with a 31-30 loss against Tennessee at home last Sunday in which the Vikings led by 12 points in the third quarter.

The Vikings will try to end their season-opening skid on Sunday against quarterback DeShaun Watson and the Texans in Houston. The Texans also are 0-3 but their losses have come against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, followed by Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Watson has only four touchdown passes and three interceptions so far, but he’s clearly thinking he can get on the right track against the Vikings.

So what are the Vikings thinking?

That’s where this gets interesting for Zimmer. The Vikings didn’t just lose five starters from last season — defensive end Everson Griffen, nose tackle Linval Joseph and cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander — but they also are without Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter (neck) and linebacker Anthony Barr (pectoral), likely for the rest of the season. Nose tackle Michael Pierce, signed to replace Joseph in free agency, opted out of the season because of concerns related to COVID-19.

Some of the Vikings’ issues on defense have been self-inflicted and others are the product of injury, or in Pierce’s case, a wise decision to put his health ahead of football. It now seems laughable that many of us thought the Vikings defense might be back to its old self right before the season when the team made a trade with Jacksonville for Pro Bowl edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue. The feeling was that Ngakoue would create an incredible one-two punch from the edge with Hunter, who had 14.5 sacks each of the past two seasons, coming off the left side.

It turned out, Hunter was nowhere near returning and the decision to put him on injured reserve for three weeks to open the season was only the start of what will be a long-term absence for a player who reportedly has a cervical spine disc herniation and just got a second opinion in New York this past week.

As far as Zimmer’s favorite position, the corners, that remains a week-to-week work in progress with a group that too often appears to be paying tribute to Josh Robinson, Asher Allen and Marcus McCauley. Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler, early picks in the 2020 draft, eventually might be fine, but they aren’t yet ready to stop NFL wide receivers consistently and Holton Hill’s play thus far makes one wonder why the Vikings bothered putting up with is off-the-field problems a year ago.

If Zimmer did have any plans on having his defense be respectable this season, it’s fair to wonder why he didn’t convince Spielman to pursue a veteran nose tackle after Pierce opted out, or a veteran corner or two after losing key players. It’s one thing to have confidence in your ability to coach players, it’s another to allow your own hubris to interfere with what’s best for your team. Especially when you know a pandemic means that much of the regular on-the-field instruction won’t be possible.

This isn’t to say that Snacks Harrison or Dre Kirkpatrick would have saved the season for the Vikings, but they could have been signed at a reasonable price and bought Zimmer and his staff time to coach-up younger players, or not expose veterans to roles they simply can’t handle.

The hope now has to be that guys like Gladney and Dantzler gain valuable experience this season, and the Vikings also find out who can play and who can’t play on defense. The return of the injured players — and Pierce — should provide a boost in 2021.

In the meantime, Zimmer is going to have to acknowledge one thing: He is now the coach of a bad defense and he must accept some of the blame for that.