The Vikings' worst nightmare has returned. They have to stop opponents without a reliable pass rush.
The loss of defensive end Danielle Hunter to a torn pectoral muscle has ramifications on all three levels of the Vikings defense, a unit that ranks 12th in scoring defense. That ranking might start to drop because Hunter, who has six sacks, is done for the year and the Purple lacks depth behind him.
The benefits of being able to pressure the quarterback with just four linemen in today's NFL are immeasurable. Blitzing can be effective but it's also risky, as quarterbacks are taught to identify where the pressure is coming from and make the corresponding read. Getting pressure with the front four makes a coach's job a lot easier.
It won't matter what coverage the defense is in if opposing quarterbacks are getting three to four seconds to make decisions. Receivers will get open and the defense is going to get sliced apart.
It was there for all to see on Sunday as soon as Hunter left the game against Dallas in the second quarter. The pass rush suffered and the secondary was vulnerable. Cowboys quarterback Cooper Rush channeled his inner Tony Romo and worked the unit over. It included a game-winning 75-yard drive, from a guy we all had to Google to see what he looked like.
Suddenly, the Vikings defense had a 2020 look to it, and they don't want to revisit that shambolic season. Roster turnover left head coach Mike Zimmer with a largely inexperienced secondary. Hunter missed the season with a neck injury. Michael Pierce opted out. We saw how that turned out. A toothless Vikings defense gave up 4,141 yards through the air, the eighth-most in the league. Not having to game plan for Hunter makes opposing coaches' lives easier, too.
Minnesota's defense was better because Hunter was healthy, Pierce was here and cornerback Patrick Peterson was signed to provide competence. None of them were on the field during Sunday's second half.
Pierce could return this week against Baltimore, but Peterson has to remain on injured reserve one more week. Getting them back on the field will help, but sack savants they are not.
Zimmer said during his Wednesday news conference that the club looked into dealing for pass-rushing help but was unable to make any progress. The only defensive end traded in the hours leading up to the deadline was the underperforming Charles Omenihu, who moved from Houston to San Francisco. Heck, the most effective defensive end dealt in the weeks leading to the deadline might be Stephen Weatherly, whom the Vikings sent to Denver on Oct. 23. Where's a time machine when you need one?
At 33, Everson Griffen looks spry, has five sacks and must carry the load going forward. He's ready for a bigger workload, which is commendable as well as a reflection of the lack of depth at the position. Other pass-rushing options on the roster include D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes and Patrick Jones II. Wonnum has one sack. Willekes has played all of 16 snaps. Jones' next snap will be his first.
They plucked little-used Jonah Williams off the Rams roster on Wednesday, but still: This defensive end room is not very deep and is about to be thrown into the fire. Lamar Jackson's Ravens this Sunday. Then a flight to the other coast to face Justin Herbert's Chargers. Aaron Rodgers after that.
"We have to challenge guys, number one," Zimmer said while talking about life without Hunter, "and be creative with some of the rushes."
The Vikings have been hit where they are the most vulnerable. Zimmer looked forward to a season with Hunter and Pierce anchoring a fierce defensive line, but the two played in only four games together.
Zimmer is an accomplished defensive coach and doesn't deserve to be in this mess. But he needs to be at his scheming best to keep opposing quarterbacks from lighting up his defense.