Vikings Defense Died without One Particular Player

Vikings Defense Died without One Particular Player
Mike Zimmer

When the Minnesota Vikings lost to the Dallas Cowboys on Halloween night, dropping that football game turned out to be a footnote for the broader calamity.

Danielle Hunter tore his pectoral muscle in that Week 8 contest, ensuring he’d miss the remainder of the 2021 season. Minnesota lost to Cooper Rush’s Cowboys that evening, but Hunter’s injury was much deadlier.

Danielle Hunter
Feb. 10, 2015; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; Defensive end Danielle Hunter. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In the first seven weeks of 2021, the Vikings certainly weren’t cruising on defense – collapses down the stretch of games were still happening – but the unit was performing well outside of crunchtime. While that sounds pathetic, it’s still a big deal for a defense to produce in moments not named “final two minutes of half.” Some good defense is better than no good defense.

But since Hunter was shelved for the season six weeks ago, Minnesota’s defense plunged to hell. Zimmer’s men went from a Top 6 bunch to a Bottom 3 group.

Don’t perceive this information as “look what they could’ve done if Hunter just would’ve stayed healthy.” That’s not what this is.

Instead, this is an indictment of depth and roster top-heaviness. Without Hunter, Zimmer’s usually-stingy defense crumbled. Plain and simple. It’s the efficiency metric above.

Losing players like Patrick Peterson, Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, and Harrison Smith here and there assuredly does not help. Yet, the Hunter subtraction is when the Vikings began the downward descent.

The same thing happened in 2020.

Per EPA/play (Estimated Points Added), the Vikings defense was the best in the world inside Zimmer’s first six seasons. Beginning in the pandemic season, Minnesota tumbled to ninth-worst. Zimmer’s defense isn’t good anymore. That’s the cold, hard truth.

And it’s likely no coincidence that the supremacy directly followed Hunter’s on-the-field availability. He missed all of 2020 with a neck injury and will miss 65% of the 2021 season, too.

Hunter was the straw that stirred the drink for the Vikings, pressuring quarterbacks and stopping ball-carriers. Other injuries have not helped the Vikings defensive deterioration. However, sans Hunter for the bulk of two seasons now – as the defense on the whole suddenly became stinky – proves the LSU alumnus was the pulse in the defensive trenches.

Unfortunately for Zimmer’s sake, the defensive regression will likely cost him his job in about five weeks.

Finally, Minnesota’s struggling ways in the last two weeks have little prognosis to change. They host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, some four days after losing to the winless Lions. Hunter definitively isn’t playing in the game, and Dalvin Cook, Adam Thielen, Christian Darrisaw, Irv Smith Jr., Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Patrick Peterson, plus Everson Griffen could all miss the game, as well.

Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sally from Minneapolis. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).