The Vikings, by virtue of some nimble salary cap maneuvering in March, retained 10 of their 11 starters on defense heading into the 2019 season. They worked late into the night to bring back Anthony Barr after he had second thoughts about signing with the Jets, and they reworked Everson Griffen’s deal minutes before it was set to become guaranteed for the year, with the defensive end waiting for an outcome in the parking lot at the team facility.
While that kind of continuity has obvious benefits — the defense has been ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in scoring each of the past four years — there can also be risks involved. And on Thursday morning, coach Mike Zimmer delivered a pointed critique of his defense aimed at warding off complacency.
After answering a question about safety Anthony Harris in his news conference, Zimmer shifted to say: “We’ve got to play better on defense than what we are playing right now. We need to play a lot better. Offense has got a lot of grit and fight and I haven’t seen that much out of the defense yet, so that’s where my major concern is at this point.”
Later, he added: “As I have told a few of them, they have been together quite a while now, and they think they are pretty good. Maybe we just go out and practice and it’s not the intensity level or whatever we need to do. They’re not making mistakes because they have been in the same defense for six years now. It is a little bit of maybe complacency. You know, ‘Hey, we’re in the top-five defense every year, blah, blah, blah,’ you know, whatever.’ ”
Four players who have been with the team since Zimmer became head coach in 2014 — Griffen, Barr, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and safety Harrison Smith — were on the field Thursday afternoon for a practice that crackled with more emotion than previous sessions, as Griffen barked at defenders to raise their intensity during a goal-line drill. Afterward, Barr and Rhodes said they weren’t previously aware of Zimmer’s comments; Smith said he had seen them. None of the three, however, expressed much surprise or took much umbrage with what Zimmer said.
“It’s just the mind-set. It’s not that we aren’t out here playing well,” Smith said. “There’s maybe an edge that he hasn’t seen that we have to we have to show.”
The Vikings have been challenged, Barr admitted, by an offense that has come into camp with its own point to prove after another offseason overhaul. The group has held its own, especially during Wednesday’s practice, when Kirk Cousins found Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith and Tyler Conklin for touchdowns during a red zone drill. The level of confidence and urgency it is bringing hasn’t always typified Vikings offenses of the past.
“They’re playing with a little more swag, a little more confidence, a little more pace, getting in and out of the huddle quickly, and then they have a lot of really good plays in that challenge us — stuff that we aren’t accustomed to seeing from years past,” Barr said. “They’re hungry to prove they’re worthy, and we need to match that on a daily basis.”
The Vikings defense, though, has its own point to prove after an 8-7-1 season that saw the team miss the playoffs after a Week 17 home loss to the Bears. After the Vikings pulled within a field goal of Chicago that day, the NFC North champions converted five third downs — one thanks to a Jayron Kearse penalty that wiped out a Barr sack — as part of a 16-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took 9:05 off the clock and put Chicago up by eight.
“You’re always going to remember the bad, right?” Barr said. “I can remember all the bad plays in my career more than I can tell you the good ones; that’s how it goes. It’s just important for us to come out here, become a team and work hard. Obviously the past is the past, and we all learn from it, but we’re living in the moment. If we continue to work hard and become a team now, it’ll pay dividends going forward.”
So how do defenders ramp up their intensity as the first full week of camp draws to a close?
“Sometimes, it’s what we call false enthusiasm,” Barr said. “You’re sore, your body hurts, your body’s telling you, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this.’ But it’s really mind over matter — you come out, and you have fun. I think energy’s contagious; you have one guy that’s jumping around, really energetic, the next guy kind of feels that and it builds.”
And, the veterans said, it’s important to take the coach’s comments as a challenge, not a criticism.
“If I took offense to everything Zim said,” Harrison Smith said with a laugh, “I wouldn’t have lasted a very long time.”