It's been rare to see a defense struggle under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, but the unit this season is inundated with inexperience and has been battered by injuries.
Young players have been thrown into the fire, and Minnesota's defense has experienced its ups and downs throughout the campaign, most recently struggling to slow down Chicago in Sunday's game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press said there’s a “silver lining” visible through the problems this season: rookie Cameron Dantzler, "who continues to come into his own as a potential shutdown cornerback on the outside."
Dantzler, whom the Vikings tabbed in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, was highlighted by analytics site Pro Football Focus as Minnesota's highest-graded defender against the Bears. Throughout the month of December, Dantzler has been the highest-graded corner in the league. Mizutani wrote:
No doubt both of those grades were aided by Dantzler's clutch interception in the final minutes of Sunday's loss, reading Trubisky like a book, then leaping to snare the pass at its highest point to give the Vikings the ball back with a chance to win the game.
If it seems as if Dantzler has consistently been in great position this month, it's because he has been. He has improved steadily under the tutelage of defensive backs coach Daronte Jones, as well as veteran safeties like Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris.
Mizutani quoted Smith, who said that Dantzler was "making plays pretty early" in the Vikings truncated training camp.
"I think getting into the games and facing some good quarterbacks and some tough competition allowed him to learn a lot, and he's starting to put it to use," Smith said.
Harris said Dantzler has "settled in" to Minnesota's defense.
"His demeanor and everything when he's out there on the field is very calm," Harris noted. "He's relaxed and poised. I think that has just come with his experience of being on the field and being in some of those positions he's been put in as of late."
Jefferson 1 of just 2 rookies named to 2021 Pro Bowl
The NFL on Monday rolled out rosters for the 2021 Pro Bowl which, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be "played" virtually via Madden.
Minnesota had just two players named to the NFC roster this year: running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
Jefferson, who on Sunday reached 73 receptions to break Randy Moss' Vikings record for catches by a rookie (69), is one of just two rookies named to this year's Pro Bowl. He joins Washington defensive end Chase Young, who tied for the team lead in forced fumbles (3) and ranked second in sacks (5.5).
CBS Sports' Tyler Sullivan pointed out other notable first-time selections: Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, Bills QB Josh Allen and Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf.
As happens every year, it seems certain players around the league could be called Pro Bowl snubs. Among those names could be argued Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was a 2019 All-Pro and participated in his first Pro Bowl as a late add. Seattle's Bobby Wagner received the nod at inside linebacker for the NFC. San Francisco's Fred Warner was the other inside linebacker named to the squad.
Vikings fans also took to social media Monday night to express disappointment in Duluth native C.J. Ham not making the Pro Bowl cut. Ham has played a significant role in Minnesota's offense this season, including scoring his second career receiving touchdown against the Jaguars in Week 13.
Ham was surpassed by 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has 188 receiving yards and two scores on the season.
To see the full Pro Bowl rosters, click here.
Vote for Jefferson — again
Stop us if you've heard this before: Jefferson has been nominated for the Pepsi Zero Sugar Rookie of the Week. The NFL announced the nomination Tuesday, and fans can vote for him between now and 2 p.m. (CT) Friday.
Jefferson recorded his sixth 100-yard game of the season, finishing Sunday's game against the Bears with game highs of 104 yards and eight catches.
The 22nd overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft is in contention for Pepsi Zero Sugar NFL Rookie of the Year, which will be announced before Super Bowl LV.