Mike Zimmer had flashed a confident smile in a training camp interview with NFL Network, responding to a question about the Vikings' on-the-fly defensive rebuild by saying, "I've never had a bad defense, ever. So I don't anticipate that changing."
But after a 52-33 loss to the Saints on Friday that made plain the degree to which Zimmer's best-laid plans had, in fact, changed, the Vikings coach was asked about the preseason pronouncement and met it squarely.
"Yeah, this is a bad defense," Zimmer said. "Worst one I've ever had."
There will be plenty of time to parse through the obvious (and, in many cases, valid) qualifications: the season-ending injuries to Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr, the pandemic that led nose tackle Michael Pierce to opt out for health reasons and wiped out the Vikings' offseason chances to work with their 15-player draft class, the calf injury that truncated another All-Pro season from linebacker Eric Kendricks. On Friday, the Vikings started the day with just one linebacker (Eric Wilson) who'd played more than 100 snaps this season; they then lost cornerback Cameron Dantzler to an injury during the game.
A withering defeat like the one that officially relegated the Vikings to the ranks of the NFC's nine non-playoff teams, though, couldn't be dressed up.
"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," Zimmer said. "We're just a little undermanned. That's still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey; they've got to play."
The Saints' 52-33 win over the Vikings will long be remembered — and rued by Minnesota fans — for its superlatives. Alvin Kamara's six rushing touchdowns tied a NFL record for the most in a game, joining Ernie Nevers, who did it in 1929. The 583 yards the Vikings gave up were the most in franchise history. New Orleans' 52 points tied the Bears' output in 1961 for the second-most ever against the Vikings, and their 264 rushing yards were the most the Vikings had allowed since 1991.
Kamara finished with 155 yards on 22 carries; 94 of them came after contact, according to Pro Football Focus, as the running back's red-and-green cleats kept pumping like pistons once Vikings defenders tried to bring him down. He wasn't touched on his 40-yard touchdown to open the game, bursting through a big hole between Shamar Stephen and D.J. Wonnum. He ran through linebackers and defensive backs for much of the day after finding space on the first level of the defense.
He wasn't alone. Former Vikings running back Latavius Murray gained 72 yards on 12 carries, and quarterback Taysom Hill had five rushes for 18 yards and a score. Even wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (on a 12-yard gain) and fullback Michael Burton (with a seven-yarder) produced key runs for a Saints team that had 14 attempts of at least seven yards.
Though quarterback Drew Brees, in his second game back from 11 broken ribs, seemed to be protecting himself on a number of throws rather than driving the ball with full force, he preyed on coverage lapses for plenty of big plays through the air.
He hit tight end Jared Cook for 44 yards when the tight end reacted to an underthrown ball before evading tackle attempts from Jeff Gladney and Anthony Harris; found Adam Trautman for 41 on the Saints' last scoring drive; and hit three big throws to Emmanuel Sanders — a 31-yard catch-and-run against Dylan Mabin, a 26-yard strike after Dantzler got turned around and a 23-yard seam route in the fourth quarter.
"I don't think being young has got anything to do with tackling," Zimmer said. "They manhandled us up front pretty well with the front guys and linebackers, but we didn't tackle. When we had chances, we didn't cover very well today. Defensive backs came off the receivers. It was disappointing."
New Orleans' first 13 offensive plays went for 136 yards and two touchdowns — the 40-yard romp from Kamara and a one-yard score from the running back. The Vikings, who did not force a punt after a game-opening three-and-out against the Bears on Sunday, did not force one at all against the Saints. The only New Orleans possessions that didn't result in points were a pair of interceptions from Brees.
"We didn't have a lot of third downs, so it was one of those CFL games where we were basically getting first downs on first and second down," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "Generally speaking when you're doing that, you can have a really good game. When you can keep your punter on the sideline for the whole game – I told [punter] Thomas [Morestead] sorry – you're doing some things well.
"Part of it is how the game was unfolding. I say this, but man there's been a lot of injuries on Minnesota's front. Zim, I know real well, they're one of the better-coached defenses and they got a lot of guys out, and that can be difficult."
The Vikings kept themselves in the game for much of the first half with an aggressive game plan that had them looking for points just before halftime. At that point, Zimmer and quarterback Kirk Cousins said, the Vikings' headsets malfunctioned, making it difficult to relay play calls to Cousins in a hurry.
After Cousins hit Irv Smith Jr. over the middle with 26 seconds left, though, the clock ticked down to 10 seconds as he tried to get players lined up. The quarterback threw the ball out of bounds to stop the clock, but officials granted the Vikings the timeout Zimmer had been trying to call.
On the Vikings' final play of the first half, Cousins threw underneath for Tyler Conklin, as the clock expired and the quarterback left the field furiously.
Still, he hit Smith for the first of their two touchdown connections to pull Minnesota within four in the third quarter after Brees' second interception bounced off the hands of Sanders and into the hands of Hardy Nickerson Jr.
But the Saints wouldn't be stopped again, as Kamara got his fifth TD of the game early in the fourth quarter and Hill added another rushing touchdown.
After the Saints got the ball back and drove to the Vikings' goal line late in the game, Payton put Kamara back in the game to give him a chance to tie the NFL touchdown record. He did so by barreling into the Vikings' end zone from five yards out, carrying defenders with him as he reached for the goal line.
The Vikings now have their first losing record since Zimmer's first year in 2014, and will finish the season against the Lions in a game that matters only for the final standings. When they assess a confounding 2020 season, the day that left their defense nowhere else to hide will be tough to forget.
"It's tough, obviously, coming into the season wanting to make it to the final game and do big things," Harris said. "Now at this point each week is about going out there and representing your brand as Minnesota Vikings, as an individual, and how we want to be seen."
Ben Goessling did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.