Throughout his tenure as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Mike Zimmer has always had two convenient scapegoats on which to blame his team’s struggles: starting quarterback Kirk Cousins, and the offense more generally. And he’s spent plenty of time assigning blame.
After a loss to the Patriots in 2018, where the Vikings ran the ball 13 times and passed 44 times, Zimmer was asked if the offense ran the ball enough. “No,” he said. What needs to happen to get the offense back on track? “Same thing I’ve been saying all year,” he said.
This past August, before the regular season even started, Zimmer was already criticizing Cousins and his team’s passing offense: “If you’re going to throw five-yard checkdowns, it’s going to take 20 of them. We’d like to get the ball down the field a little bit more.”
In September, Zimmer talked about his weekly one-on-one film sessions with Cousins (Something he started doing just this year! And at Cousins’s request!) and whether Cousins wants more autonomy in the offense: “I think he does, yeah. I think he’s got opinions on a lot of things, yeah.”
And here we have Fox sideline reporter Jen Hale, relating what Zimmer told her about the Vikings offense after the first half of this season’s Week 1 loss at Cincinnati: “He was very frank with me, he is blaming a lot of this offense’s problems in that first half on Kirk Cousins holding the ball too long. He says he’s got to get rid of it sooner.”
You get the point. Going into this season, Zimmer had been able to divert most of the blame for his team’s losses to the offense. But now, not even a reliable punching bag like Cousins can held up as the team’s biggest problem. That’s because what’s really plaguing the Vikings is a bad defense that is only getting worse.
Zimmer became the Vikings head coach in 2014, and from 2014-19, his defense was consistently in the top half of the major categories (rushing and passing yards allowed, total yards and points allowed). He had the No. 1 defense in 2017 (15.8 points per game), but his unit dropped significantly in all categories in 2020 and 2021. Until last year, Zimmer’s Vikings defense had never allowed more than 21.4 points per game. In 2020, they finished just ahead of the Raiders, Jaguars and Lions, allowing 29.7 points per game. This year, they’re 25th in the league with 25.4 points per game. They are the league’s fourth-worst defense in total yards allowed (4,584), and third-worst in yards per game (382). Before 2020, they’d never allowed more than 234 passing yards per game. This year, they’re averaging 250 passing yards per game.
After a 52-33 loss to the Saints on Christmas Day last season, Zimmer actually admitted his defense was a problem, telling reporters, “This is a bad defense, worst one I’ve ever had.”
But he still didn’t take responsibility for his play calling or his decisions, instead pointing out all the injuries to his unit and the poor play from the guys stepping in to replace them. “We’re missing four defensive linemen, we’re missing a safety, we’re missing three corners, we’re missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started,” he told reporters. “We’re just a little undermanned. That’s still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey, they’ve got to play.”
This isn’t a single-season anomaly anymore, but a trend. Zimmer knows it, and seems to be going out of his way to defend himself. After the Vikings lost to the Cowboys at home in Week 8, their third straight game giving up a key last-minute touchdown, Zimmer pulled some notes out of his sweatshirt pocket and began reading some stats about his defense. “We’ve gotta do better in two-minute drills,” Zimmer told reporters, then looked down to his notes. “You know, we’re eighth in turnover differential, 12th in points per game, number one in sacks, fifth in third downs, 13th in first downs per game. So there’s some good things.”
The two-minute defense has only gotten worse since Zimmer produced his assortment of happy stats. That week, the Vikings defense allowed the Cowboys to run an eight-play, 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive with 2:51 left in regulation. The next week at Baltimore, the defense stopped the Ravens by sacking Lamar Jackson on the final play of regulation to force overtime. They stopped Baltimore’s offense again on the first drive of overtime when Anthony Barr picked off Jackson, but ultimately allowed Justin Tucker a game-winning 36-yard field goal on the Ravens’ second drive of overtime. The Vikings beat the Packers in Week 11 with a field goal in the final two seconds, but the defense first allowed Aaron Rodgers to tie up the game on a one-play drive: a 75-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling with 2:17 left.
And then last week, you know what happened. The Lions had no timeouts and only 1:50 left on the clock, and still managed to win the game as time expired. “We were just too soft on them,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “Let them get out of bounds a couple times. That was pretty much it.”
If there’s one play that’s perfectly representative of how inept the Vikings’ late-game defense has been, it is probably the one which earned the Lions their first win of the season. Detroit was facing a fourth-and-2 from the Vikings’ nine-yard line, and only had time for one more play. All the Vikings had to do was keep the Lions out of the end zone—Zimmer even called a timeout before the play and huddled up with his defense—and yet for some reason Minnesota’s defensive backs dropped deep and let Jared Goff take a shot for the win.
The play that ended the game against the Lions sticks out, but the Vikings have been blowing it in clutch situations all year. They have played in overtime three times this season and have won just one of those contests, at Carolina in Week 6. Zimmer only found himself in overtime in that game because the Vikings’ two-minute defense allowed a 96-yard game-tying touchdown and two-point conversion drive.
The Athletic published a detailed breakdown of the Vikings’ defensive struggles this week, digging up this tragic stat:
The Vikings are worse at the end of the first half than they are in the second, enough that their end-of-half defense is the worst that the NFL has seen in the past 21 years, per Trumedia. Giving up six points per game in the game’s 29th and 30th minutes, the Vikings’ defense in that situation has managed to outdo the 2018 Bengals, the second-worst, by an extraordinary margin.
The Athletic also notes that in the first 28 minutes of the game, the Vikings defense has given up the third-fewest points in the NFL, and they rank seventh for the 56 minutes outside of the final two minutes of each half.
After Rodgers lost to the Vikings this year, he went into detail about how good Zimmer is at disguising blitzes that confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines. He told Pat McAfee that he was fooled by a new Double-A gap blitz design that Zimmer unveiled in that game. But even Rodgers’s compliment helps to illustrate the Vikings’ inability to defend when it really counts: When Rodgers saw that Double-A gap blitz for the second time, he made the necessary adjustments and found Valdes-Scantling for that 75-yard touchdown pass.
The Vikings have had their fair share of struggles and demoralizing losses during Zimmer’s tenure, but most of them have been associated with a back-breaking interception from Cousins or a brutal missed field goal. This year, though, there is a new flavor of struggle, and it’s one that can be directly traced back to Zimmer, who calls the plays and leads the defensive unit. There’s still a chance this team can make the playoffs, which means Vikings fans should probably start preparing now to face whatever horrors might await them in the final two minutes of a playoff game.