No pressure, Yannick Ngakoue. Now that you’ve moved your life to Minnesota, found a place to live, learned how to avoid our maskless fools, introduced yourself to teammates, learned where to park at U.S. Bank Stadium and contemplated the true, insidious meaning of “Minnesota Nice,’’ all we will ask you to do is to save a football season.
It’s all on you.
Well, OK, it’s not all on you. NFL games can be decided by a foolish decision by the last guy on the roster. But if we were going to identify the most pivotal non-quarterback in Sunday’s Vikings game at Indianapolis, it might be Ngakoue, the lone blue-chip defensive lineman on what used to be the most important position group on the roster.
Remember when Harrison Smith, before the season began, huffily answered an incisive question about the defense by saying “I didn’t realize we were supposed to be bad’’?
Smith was right in noting that the Vikings haven’t produced a statistically poor defense in a long time.
But the defenses that built their record and reputation relied on a deep, talented defensive line that beat up quarterbacks, occupied run blockers and set up pup tents in the opposing backfield.
That didn’t happen on Sunday against the Packers, and it didn’t come close to happening in their playoff loss to the 49ers last year.
And this isn’t the same defensive line that helped the Vikings to the playoffs last year or to the NFC title game not so long ago.
Everson Griffen is gone. Linval Joseph is gone. Michael Pierce, who was supposed to ably replace Joseph, opted out. Danielle Hunter, one of the NFL’s best players, is injured.
What remains is one blue-chip player who is just getting his bearings, in Ngakoue, and a bunch of guys who as of late last season were considered backups or role players, and now that unproven group is being asked to pressure passers well enough to protect a young group of cornerbacks.
This proved to be a terrible combination against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. A fairer test of this defensive line arrives Sunday in Indianapolis.
The last time the Vikings faced Philip Rivers, they harassed him into the turnovers that led to a 39-10 victory in Los Angeles. This game will present a slightly different challenge. Rivers still looks like the aging risk-taker who handed the Vikings an easy victory last year, but he’s playing behind an excellent offensive line.
It may be an oversimplification to say that this game will come down to the Vikings pressuring Rivers. But it might not be far from the truth.
And if the Vikings are going to pressure Rivers, they’re going to need Ngakoue either to make plays himself, or command enough attention that his teammates are free to do so.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Week 1 and Week 2 was pointed out by Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson last week. He noted that Rodgers released the ball in an average of 2.3 seconds per dropback last week. He noted, correctly, that it is almost impossible to get to a quarterback in that amount of time.
He also admitted that there were plays on which the line had more time and still didn’t get home, or allowed Rodgers to scramble.
Rivers can put up big passing numbers in any given week, but he’s far less challenging than Rodgers. He tends to hold the ball longer, hoping for big plays downfield, and he is far less mobile. He’s the perfect cure for what ails the Vikings defense — if it can get to him.
If it can’t, then Colts star receiver T.Y. Hilton will get to run deep against cornerbacks who did not look ready to be NFL starters last week.
So, Yannick, be sure to stock up for the winter. Buy a parka and some warm boots. Avoid the lutefisk and lefse. And consider your internship over. The Vikings need big plays from you, or this season might be over before you buy your first ice scraper.