Vikings Struggling Rush Defense is Getting Better Every Week

PHOTO: ELIZABETH FLORES – STAR TRIBUNE

Last offseason the Minnesota Vikings went all in on fixing their defense. General Manager, Rick Spielman, signed a few veteran cornerbacks to sure up a young and leaky secondary. And to fix their terrible 2020 run defense, Rick hoped the return of Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr, combined with the signing of (DT) Dalvin Tomlinson (2YR/$21M) and the long-awaited debut of (DT) Michael Pierce would be the answer.

Nobody inside of the Vikings organization, specifically Mike Zimmer, wanted to see Alvin Kamara score six touchdowns on their defense again. But unfortunately, their effort to build back their high-level (or even competent) run defense has been dramatically unsuccessful through six games.

The Numbers

With or without Michael Pierce, who’s spent half the season injured and who’s unlikely to play again Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings have LOOKED especially bad against opposing rush attacks for most of the season. Through six games, Minnesota’s defense has yet to hold an opposing team under 100 yards rushing. And with Dallas in town this weekend, that streak will likely continue.

Here are some other defensive rankings/statistics that will depress you. where the Vikings rank as a team for run defense.

  • 17th in opponent rush attempts per game (26.7)
  • 26th in rushing yards allowed per game (128.0)
  • 29th in yards allowed per rush attempt (4.8)

The Dallas Cowboys are coming to US Bank Stadium for Sunday Night Football and there’s no doubt they’ll run the ball. They’ve been trampling all over opposing defenses this season and, if he plays, Dak Prescott isn’t expected to be anywhere near 100%. Ezekiel Elliott (521 YDS, 5 TD, 5.1 YPC) has led the way but backup, Tony Pollard (366 YDS, 1 TD, 6.0 YPC), has looked even better than Zeke at times.

Together, they’ve been borderline unstoppable.

  • 3rd in rush attempts per game.
  • 2nd in rush yards per game.
  • 3rd in rush yards per attempt.

But, there’s hope.

Sensible thinking would tell us that Minnesota will struggle to stop the Dallas’ run game on Sunday night but there’s reason for optimism. Zimmer’s new run defense has underperformed so far, but they’ve gotten better as the year has gone on.

It doesn’t look like Michael Pierce will play but Anthony Barr practiced in full on Thursday, meaning he should be on the field for only the second game in a row. But even without Pierce, the Vikings defense has improved their defense every week.

In the last few games, the Vikings defense has been on the field less, partially because they have forced more 3rd downs and forced stops on most of them. PFF says they’ve steadily improved in all defensive categories, as the season has progressed. That includes tackling, pass rush and coverage. They’ve raised their overall grade from the 50’s and 60’s in weeks 1-5 to the high 70’s and low 80’s the last two weeks.

But their rush defense grade, specifically, has improved on itself every single week. Quite interesting.

The Horses

The Minnesota Vikings have the horses to stop the run and play good overall defense, even without Michael Pierce. And as we’ve seen with the improving numbers, Rick Spielman’s offseason quest can’t be judged quite yet.

Dalvin Tomlinson is known for his ability to stop opposing running backs. He’s 6’3″, 315 pounds and has never had a season where PFF graded his rush defense less than 70. For three of his five seasons, he’s hovered around an 80 grade. For context, there are only six defensive tackles in the NFL above an 80 run grade this season.

If Michael Pierce has to sit out and Armon Watts gets the start again the Vikings should be alright. He’s been forced into the starting lineup the last two weeks and the defense has still continued its trend upward. Watts is having a career year. We’ll see if his production (36 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 FF and 18 QB hurries) is sustainable.

It’s about time the run defense starts to produce

The second level of the Minnesota Vikings defense needs to be better too. Anthony Barr has only played in two games this season and doesn’t have a tackle for loss since 2019. He needs to stay healthy and play better if he wants to get another payday this offseason.

Eric Kendricks has also been largely disappointing too, given what the expectations he’s set. His 64.9 PFF grade against the run ranks 49th out of 82 qualified linebackers. That’s not good enough.

The talent needed to stop opposing rush attacks are on roster and they’re being led by a defensive mastermind, in Mike Zimmer. There is no reason this group should be near the bottom of the league in any defensive rushing categories.

It won’t be easy, but if they can slow down the Dallas Cowboys in primetime on Sunday night, the Vikings probably move to 4-3 on the season and I’ll bet others start to recognize the same improvement all of the numbers already show.

Cooper Carlson | Minnesota Sports Fan