EAGAN, Minn. — For the first time in seven seasons under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, the defense took a backseat as Minnesota's most reliable unit.
In fact, it was not only the worst defensive performance in Zimmer's time in Minnesota, but also possibly in his entire NFL career.
"This is a bad defense," Zimmer said after a Week 16 loss to the Saints. "Worst one I've ever had."
That Christmas Day game easily sticks out as the lowpoint of the season for a Vikings defense that allowed a franchise-worst 583 yards. Minnesota also gave up a 52 points, the most allowed by the Vikings since the 1963 season.
Injuries didn't help, as Danielle Hunter didn't play at all, Anthony Barr played roughly five quarters and free-agent addition Michael Pierce opted out due to COVID-19 concerns.
Even some of those who did make an impact couldn't stay healthy for the full season, as Eric Kendricks missed the final five games because of a calf injury. Multiple injuries also kept Cameron Dantzler off the field for five-plus games.
Overall, it was a rough season for a Vikings defense that couldn't overcome youth and bad luck with injuries.
Minnesota finished 29th overall with 29.7 points allowed per game and ranked 27th with 393.3 yards allowed per game.
But, there is also hope for better days in 2021, especially if Hunter, Barr and Pierce return in fine form. And with eight different rookies seeing the field in 2020, that experience could help them progress going into their second NFL season.
3 strong defensive stats in 2020:
1. Goal-to-go situations
The Vikings gave up plenty of yards in 2020. But they buckled down when opponents got inside the 10-yard line, otherwise known as the low red zone.
In fact, the Vikings ranked third in the league by allowing touchdowns on 65.85 percent of the time when an opposing offense was in a goal-to-go situation. Opponents found the end zone on 27 of 41 such instances.
"Honestly we worked extremely hard on red zone, inside the 5-yard line, and that's part of it," Zimmer said after Minnesota's Week 9 home win over Detroit. "Understanding where you're at. Understanding what they like to do. We spend a couple days every week trying to be good at that."
The Lions scored just one touchdown on a trio of goal-to-go situations that day at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Minnesota's best goal-to-go performance in 2020 came in Week 4 at Houston, when the Vikings denied a Texans touchdown on three separate possessions inside the 10-yard line. That includes a late fourth-quarter stand that allowed the Vikings to secure their first win of the season.
2. Interceptions by linebackers
Here's a fun stat for you: the Vikings led the NFL in interceptions by linebackers in 2020. And had a pair of players tie for the league lead in interceptions by players at that position.
Eric Kendricks and Eric Wilson each had three picks apiece in 2020, with both players setting career highs. The duo tied with Jacksonville's Joe Schobert and Baltimore's Tyus Bowser for the most interceptions among all NFL linebackers.
Those two players were a big reason Minnesota ended up with seven total interceptions by linebackers. The Vikings were the only team with more than four. (Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Jacksonville each had four total interceptions by linebackers).
Kendricks had high praise for Wilson midway through the 2020 season.
"I don't know that anyone's playing at a higher level than Eric Wilson right now," Kendricks said. "That man is a walking turnover."
Wilson is slated to be an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer had high praise for Kendricks in 2020.
"Eric has a lot of great attributes. His instincts are No. 1. He can anticipate things before they happen," Adam Zimmer said. "He's really, really good in coverage, and we can match him up against any back or tight end and feel good about it. I like the way he approaches the game.
"He's just a student of the game and is always studying and just wants to win," he added. "He's playing as good of football as ever. He's even improved on the great season he had last year. I'm glad we have him."
3. Health at safety
As mentioned above, injuries played a big role in the story of the 2020 Vikings defense. And if you add it up, the combination of Hunter, Barr, Pierce, Kendricks, Dantzler, Mike Hughes, Cam Smith, Troy Dye and Kenny Willekes missed a total of 105 full games this past season.
But one position that fortunately stayed healthy was safety, where Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris not only started all 16 games, but also played 95-plus percent of Minnesota's defensive snaps.
Harris was the Vikings only defensive player to not come off the field in 2020, as he played all 1,074 defensive snaps. He is scheduled to be a free agent this offseason after playing the 2020 season on the franchise tag.
Smith was third on the Vikings with 1,030 defensive snaps (95.90 percent), and it likely would have been more without a controversial disqualification after he made a tackle at Houston. After the season, he commented on what the season was like for the veteran safeties with young players around them.
"As a safety, especially in this defense, you're always asked to — no matter how many vets or whatever are on the field — [to help with] the communication, the pre-snap stuff, kind of between us and the linebackers," Smith said. "That has to be handled every year no matter what. If you're working with some new guys, you might have to spend a little more time on it but the role of a safety here, you have to do that no matter what.
"So, I don't think it's any different," Smith added. "I think you just have to understand who you're always working with and how you can best set up the defense and the secondary to be successful."
According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, Smith ranked 12th with a season grade of 74.3 among safeties with 800-plus snaps. Harris was 28th among the same group with a grade of 66.1.
2 stats that need to improve in 2021:
1. The pass rush
Mike Zimmer made no secret what a big focus will be for the Vikings defense this offseason.
"A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers," Zimmer said. "I've always said since the day I walked in here that you've got to have people that can cover and you've got to have people that can rush.
"So, we need people that can rush the quarterback," Zimmer added. "And whether it's a linebacker, a cornerback or safety you've got to have guys that can cover in today's NFL. So that makes a big difference."
It's no surprise that Zimmer wants to improve the pass rush. The Vikings finished with just 23 sacks, the lowest total on franchise history since sacks became an official stat in 1982. And the player that finished with the most sacks in a Vikings uniform was Yannick Ngakoue, who had 5.0 but also wasn't on the roster after Week 6.
The Vikings sacks total ranked 28th in the NFL, and was the same ranking as Minnesota's sack rate on pass attempts, which was 4.25 percent. The Vikings produced 23 sacks on 541 pass attempts by opponents.
Hunter was sorely missed in this aspect. He posted back-to-back seasons with 14.5sacks in both 2018 and 2019.
2. The run defense
By the time the 2020 season ended, the Vikings ranked 27th in rushing yards allowed per game at 134.3.
Oddly enough, the Vikings gave up just six rushes on 20-plus yards, which tied for the third-fewest in the league. But that means Minnesota gave up plenty of runs that moved the chains but didn't hit the 20-yard mark.
In fact, the Vikings gave up 136 runs that went for a first down. That stat ranked 29th in the league, as did a first-down rate allowed, which was 28.8 percent. In simpler terms, Minnesota allowed a first down on the ground more than a quarter of the time an opponent ran the ball.
All in all, the Vikings gave up at least 95 rushing yards in all but one game in 2020. And they allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 12 of 16 games.
The lowlight for this aspect was the Saints game, of course, as Minnesota allowed 264 rushing yards in New Orleans. That total was the most under Zimmer, and the most allowed by the Vikings since 1991.
The Vikings also allowed seven total rushing touchdowns in that game, including six to Alvin Kamara, who tied an NFL record for the most in a game. That record was set by Minnesota native Ernie Nevers in 1929.