The Vikings defensive line weathered multiple storms in 2021.
Minnesota entered the campaign having re-signed Everson Griffen and with a healthy Danielle Hunter. The two played in just six games at defensive end together, however.
Griffen played in Week 1 as a reserve behind D.J. Wonnum, and he missed the Vikings Week 2 contest at Arizona after suffering an injury in a car accident; in November, he was placed on the Non-Football Illness list for the remainder of the season. Hunter started the first seven games for Minnesota but landed on Injured Reserve with a torn pec prior to Week 9.
Griffen and Hunter combined for 11 sacks before being sidelined.
The Vikings ended up starting six different combinations on their defensive line throughout the season.
Michael Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson initially anchored the line's interior.
"Those guys can do everything," Wonnum said of the duo. "They stop the run, but guys don't see that they rush the passer, as well."
Pierce, however – who opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns – ultimately played just eight games in his first active season with the Vikings.
Armon Watts stepped in and stepped up when called upon.
The 25-year-old played all 17 games for the Vikings and made nine starts at defensive tackle. Watts led all of Minnesota's defensive linemen with 46 tackles (20 solo).
Wonnum also answered the bell. He opened as the starter opposite Hunter and then shifted to a reserve role once Griffen began starting in Week 5. Wonnum then started opposite Griffen after Hunter was injured against Dallas.
"Danielle and Griff' are great players," Wonnum said, "[But] next man up – you've just gotta keep going and getting better."
Richardson made starts both at end and on the line's interior, demonstrating his versatility (more on that below) and abilities as a pass rusher.
The Vikings called on James Lynch to make his first career start at San Francisco, and Kenny Willekes had an opportunity to contribute after missing all of his rookie season with a torn ACL. Willekes played in six games for Minnesota on defense and special teams.
Rookie Patrick Jones II, whom the Vikings drafted in the third round, appeared in nine games.
View the best defensive end photos from the 2021 season shot by Vikings photographers.
952 — Wonnum played 952 defensive snaps (79 percent), which was nearly 300 more than any of his teammates on the defensive line. Richardson received the second-most action on game days, playing 690 defensive snaps.
Late in the first quarter of Minnesota's Week 5 contest against Detroit, Griffen sacked Lions QB Jared Goff on the Vikings 38-yard line. Griffen knocked the ball loose, and it was recovered by Lynch, who that day had made his 2021 season debut.
The turnover marked Lynch's first career fumble recovery and effectively stopped the Lions offensive drive. Minnesota took over at its own 35 and embarked on a 6-minute drive capped by a Greg Joseph field goal.
The Vikings went on to defeat the Lions 19-17.
15 tackles (10 solo), 5.0 sacks, 4 tackles for loss and 1 forced fumble; started 6 of the 9 games he made appearances in and played 457 of Minnesota's 1,208 defensive snaps (37.8 percent)
38 tackles (23 solo), 6.0 sacks and 6 tackles for loss; started all 7 of the 7 games he made appearances in and played 384 defensive snaps (31.8 percent)
7 tackles (4 solo); appeared in 9 games and played 99 defensive snaps (8.2 percent)
30 tackles (18 solo), 1.0 sack and 2 tackles for loss; started 1 of the 13 games he made appearances in and played 305 defensive snaps (25.2 percent)
20 tackles (12 solo), 3.0 sacks, 3 tackles for loss and 1 forced fumble; started all 8 of the 8 games he made appearances in and played 251 defensive snaps (20.8 percent)
39 tackles (24 solo), 2.5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 4 passes defensed; started 7 of the 17 games he made appearances in and played 690 defensive snaps (57.1 percent)
39 tackles (17 solo), 2.5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery and 2 passes defensed; started all 16 of the 16 games he made appearances in and played 641 defensive snaps (53.1 percent)
46 tackles (20 solo), 5.0 sacks, 3 tackles for loss and 2 forced fumbles; started 9 of the 17 games he made appearances in and played 670 defensive snaps (55.5 percent)
18 tackles (11 solo), 2.5 sacks, 2 tackles for loss and 1 pass defensed; appeared in 6 games and played 202 defensive snaps (16.7 percent)
47 tackles (29 solo), 8.0 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble and 4 passes defensed; started 14 of the 17 games he made appearances in and played 952 defensive snaps (78.8 percent)
1. Forced and recovered
The Vikings needed a stop at Carolina, and a defensive tackle tandem delivered.
Minnesota held a 28-17 lead over Carolina in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers clawed their way back into the game with a vengeance. The Panthers were moving the ball with just over eight minutes remaining, but Watts strip-sacked quarterback Sam Darnold. The ball was recovered by Tomlinson, who was able to hang onto it at the Carolina 38-yard line.
That takeaway proved even more significant over the next several minutes, as the Panthers still managed to come back and send the game into overtime. Had Watts not disrupted Darnold when he did, who's to say Carolina would not have found a way to take the lead?
The Vikings defense wasn't even called upon in overtime, as Minnesota won the toss, drove down the field and won the game on a 27-yard touchdown catch by K.J. Osborn.
2. Sacks spree
Soldier Field always has proven to be a difficult road venue for Minnesota, but the Vikings defense showed up to the Week 15 Monday Night Football contest ready to go.
It wasn't a flawless outing for the unit, but Minnesota's defensive line put plenty of pressure on rookie Justin Fields. The quarterback was sacked by second-year defensive end D.J. Wonnum three times, a single-game career high for the 24-year-old.
Wonnum may have been the only one to sack Fields, but Fields felt the heat from the Vikings. Minnesota recorded 14 quarterback pressures (according to pro-football-reference.com) and three quarterback knockdowns after the ball had been released.
The Vikings held Fields to 26-of-39 passing for 285 yards and a single touchdown. On the ground, the Bears totaled 115 rushing yards on 28 carries but didn't get into the end zone.
Another big play on the big stage occurred when Richardson forced a fumble by running back David Montgomery in the red zone. Montgomery was initially ruled down by contact, but Richardson convinced former Head Coach Mike Zimmer to throw the challenge flag. The call was overturned, and Richardson received credit for the forced fumble and recovery.
Minnesota's defensive outing helped lift the Vikings over the Bears 17-9.
1. Murray makes it happen
How can a game in which one player (Hunter) notches 3.0 sacks be a "lowest low"?
Bear with me here.
The Vikings did some things incredibly well defensively at Arizona in Week 2.
Hunter took down mobile quarterback Kyler Murray three times, and the Vikings additionally recorded two interceptions.
Losing a game in which the defensive stat sheet lit up like a Christmas tree was certainly one of Minnesota's lowest moments.
Blame could be placed on all three phases of the ball, to be sure, including a missed field goal that would have given the Vikings a walk-off win.
But though the Vikings gave Murray plenty of trouble, they still allowed the young QB to find plenty of success.
Murray finished the afternoon 29-of-36 passing for 400 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions with a passer rating of 117.6. Minnesota also allowed Murray to rush for 31 yards and a touchdown.
That outing marked Murray's only 400-yard performance of the season and was the Vikings poorest performance against the pass.
2. Ravens revved run game
While we're on the topic, the Vikings put up similar defensive stats against the Ravens in Week 9 but once again fell short, losing 34-31 in Baltimore.
At first glance, it seems like a successful outing – and, in some ways, it was. Richardson (1.5), Watts (1.0) and Willekes (0.5) combined for 3.0 sacks of Lamar Jackson, and the Vikings picked off the quarterback twice (Camryn Bynum and Anthony Barr).
But what the defense did in the passing game, it lacked mightily against the rush.
Minnesota limited Jackson to 266 passing yards but allowed him to rush 21 times for 120 yards. The Vikings also gave up 79 rushing yards to Devonta Freeman and 48 yards a touchdown to veteran running back Le'Veon Bell.
Pressing Questions for 2022
1. Will Sheldon Richardson be back in the fold?
Richardson signed a one-year deal to return to Minnesota for the 2021 campaign and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
Will the Vikings work out a deal to retain Richardson?
He may be 31 years old, but Richardson certainly proved he's got gas left in the tank. He also turned out to be even more valuable than one might have expected when Vikings coaches called on him to switch positions. Richardson slid from defensive tackle to defensive end when Griffen and Hunter were out, and he made several plays from the outside to help Minnesota down the stretch.
With the Vikings working on new hires for head coach and general manager, it will be interesting to see if new leadership works to keep Richardson around.
2. Who will oversee the Vikings defensive line next season?
The Vikings defensive line has been well-coached by Andre Patterson since Zimmer stepped to the helm in 2014.
Most recently, Patterson served as the assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator while continuing to oversee the position group. It remains to be seen whom the Vikings will hire as head coach after relieving Zimmer of his duties and who – if anyone – that individual will retain from Minnesota's coaching staff.
Should Patterson stay on, there certainly would be that consistency for the defensive line. But if a new position coach is brought in, who will that be?