The Vikings CB group is very talented
By: Grant Schwieger
The 2020 Minnesota Vikings defense was largely an overall dumpster fire. From the pass rush to the run defense to the coverage on the back end, there really were not many positives to take away from the defense last season. This was caused by a multitude of reasons. The Vikings were fairly strapped for cash and lost Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Linval Joseph, and Everson Griffen, all key defensive players from 2019, as a result. Minnesota suffered from a lack of depth to begin the season, and that combined with covid opt-outs (Michael Pierce) and injuries (Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Mike Hughes, and eventually Eric Kendricks) made the defense borderline unwatchable by December 2020.
Before the 2020 season started, Mike Zimmer stated “I’ve never had a bad defense. So I don’t anticipate that changing.”
This contributed to many Minnesota faithful having an unreasonable amount of optimism, only to realize Week 1 they needed to tone it down a notch, or five. Zimmer went into the opening game against Green Bay with Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and Cam Dantzler as his top three CBs. The Vikings gave up 43 points. Hughes and Hill played a combined 428 snaps all season. By season’s end, the top four CBs in terms of snaps played for Minnesota were Jeff Gladney (958), Cam Dantzler (601), Kris Boyd (343), and somehow Chris Jones (267). If you need a second to run to the bathroom to throw up, go ahead. Those four entered 2020 with a combined 374 career NFL snaps. That is far from ideal, and Minnesota spent 2021 making sure that would not be the case this time around.
Entering the 2021 season, the clear top four Vikings CBs are now Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland, Mackensie Alexander, and Cam Dantzler. Those 4 have combined for 18,910 NFL snaps to this point. Just a slight difference from last season! There was a clear emphasis in the offseason to make sure this year’s Vikings squad doesn’t give up the 6th highest success rate on opposing dropbacks (per rbsdm.com) like they did last season. Even the rest of the current 90-man roster has some NFL experience, with Kris Boyd (442 career snaps), Harrison Hand (163), Tye Smith (613), and Parry Nickerson (251) all in camp boasting familiarity in NFL secondaries. Secondaries are mostly a weak-link system, meaning you are only as strong as your weakest player, so it is important for Minnesota to make sure whoever their weakest link is in 2021 is not a deer in headlights.
The most important part of a weak-link system, however, is to do your best to make sure that your “weakest” link is in fact not weak at all. Not only were none of the Vikings CBs last season experienced, but almost all of them struggled immensely. The good news is that the only one who received a lot of playing time and showed signs of potentially being a quality NFL CB is still looking to be in the rotation this year in Dantzler. He had the 3rd highest PFF grade on the Vikings defense last season, trailing only Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith.
In even better news, the Minnesota coaching staff currently does not view Dantzler as a lock to even start, as he has been rotating in with Breeland with the starters so far in camp. Peterson has been locking up one of the outside CB spots and Alexander should likely be the main slot CB to start the season. This should come as good news to Vikings fans because it means the defense once again has solid depth in its secondary. The third and fourth corners on a team will find themselves still being very important to the team, whether it be rotating in during the game or needing to jump in in the case of an injury. So, there is no need to worry about Dantzler’s spot on the depth chart as he will still find plenty of time to make an impact on the field.
While Patrick Peterson’s days of being an elite NFL CB may be behind him, he will certainly still provide value to Mike Zimmer’s defense. His knowledge of the game is top-notch and he is now able to share that with Minnesota’s less-experienced DBs. He was seen on Saturday at the Vikings practice coaching up Dantzler on the best way to strip the ball from the running back. Little things like that veteran players provide were not very common in Minnesota last season and this team should surely benefit from him.
Breeland and Alexander are clear upgrades over what Zimmer had to work with last year as well. Breeland is fresh off of one of the best seasons of his seven-year career and has a Super Bowl ring from 2019 as well. Alexander spent the first four years of his career in Minnesota before a stint in Cincinnati last season. The fact that he decided to return to Minnesota after a year away is a testament to the reputation Zimmer has built here and is a good sign. He has been one of the better slot CBs in the NFL the last few years and hopefully can keep that trend continuing.
While the remaining CBs on the current Vikings roster has a bit of experience, a few of them also have been fairly solid when given the opportunity. Harrison Hand only had 163 snaps as a rookie last season, but he did not get embarrassed on the field which is something not many other 2020 Minnesota corners can say. Tye Smith has also played limited snaps for Tennessee in 3 of the last 4 years and has been reliable when called upon. Coverage can be quite volatile, and there is a key element to this year’s Vikings defense that will hopefully give all of Minnesota’s coverage defenders a boost compared to last season.
The debate between whether coverage or pass rush is more important to an NFL defense can go back and forth forever. One thing that most everyone can agree on, though, is that they both have a direct impact on each other. Good coverage can allow the pass rush more time to get to the QB, and a good pass rush allows those in coverage to cover for a shorter amount of time. With Danielle Hunter back on the field and the additions of Sheldon Richardson and Dalvin Tomlinson among others, the Vikings pass rush should certainly improve. In fact, it really cannot get much worse than it was in 2020. This should take some pressure off the Minnesota secondary and put them in more situations to succeed.
At the time when Mike Zimmer boldly stated he had never had a bad defense, he was not that far from the truth. Of course, once that quote backfired on him he got roasted for it, but there is no doubt he is going into 2021 ready to get his defense back to where it usually is, at the top of the league. He clearly wanted to spend this past offseason emphasizing improving his defense and it appears he has done so. Zimmer is considered a “CB guru” by many and his defense’s success will start and stop with his bread and butter. Between their upgraded skills, depth, and experience at the position and the improved pass rush, there are a plethora of reasons for optimism in the Minnesota defensive backfield for 2021.