EAGAN, Minn. — Dealing with injuries to defensive players has been a little like playing Whack-a-Mole for Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Minnesota entered the 2020 season needing to rely on young players more than in previous years, but season-ending injuries to the likes of Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr – combined with shorter-term absences throughout the year – have made a major impact on the Vikings defense.
The group has experienced its share of ups and downs throughout a season already affected heavily by the COVID-19 pandemic. And although Zimmer likely didn't plan on throwing some of his young players into the fire quite so quickly, challenging circumstances provided opportunities for draft picks like Cam Dantzler, Jeff Gladney and Troy Dye to log significant starting experience.
Fourth-rounder D.J. Wonnum just made his first start last week, and Harrison Hand has worked in the cornerback rotation against Jacksonville and at New Orleans. Undrafted rookie linebacker Blake Lynch made his first career start against the Saints.
"[The Vikings rookie class is] pretty deep," Hand told Twin Cities media members this week. "It's a crazy year with everything that's going on from COVID and everything, but it was good that we got this year just to really get the … reps out there [and] know that going into next season, we'll be more experienced."
Added Lynch: "I think the first drive I was kind of out my head. It was surreal. But it was a great opportunity, and I enjoyed it."
With Minnesota (6-9) already eliminated from the postseason, what do the Vikings hope to get defensively out of Sunday's season finale at Detroit (5-10)?
Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson emphasized capping the season in such a way that players reflect over the season and can be happy with progress made.
"Just that they've gotten better. I think that's the key," Patterson said. "That they have the ability to look at cut-ups when they come back in the spring and see where they started and where they ended."
Co-Defensive Coordinator Adam Zimmer added that he hopes players demonstrate their handle on Minnesota's defensive scheme.
"Being more comfortable with the calls and alignments and assignments, so when we get back here, whenever that may be, we're hitting the ground running," Zimmer said.
With a focus on the present but an eye also on the future, here are questions for the defense:
What does the defensive line look like?
The Vikings defensive line this season has looked quite a bit different than in recent years.
Minnesota saw the departure of Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph in free agency, and new addition Michael Pierce opted out of the 2020 campaign due to health concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Hunter's neck injury sent him to Injured Reserve for the entire season.
Yannick Ngakoue started the season with the Vikings after a late trade with the Jaguars, but he was then traded to the Ravens after the first six games.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
Considering all of the above, the Vikings have worked with a young rotation up-front, having primarily started Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Shamar Stephen and Ifeadi Odenigbo. Other names who have contributed to the unit include Hercules Mata'afa, Armon Watts, Eddie Yarbrough, Wonnum and rookie James Lynch.
It remains to be seen if Zimmer will opt to rest any starters in a Week 17 contest that doesn't hold much weight, but injuries could play a part in who sees action in Detroit.
Holmes (groin) and Odenigbo (chest) were non-participants Wednesday and Thursday. Watts (ankle) was listed on the report but practiced fully.
Fans will likely get an opportunity Sunday to see some youngsters accrue more playing time on a defensive line that has struggled throughout the season. According to Sportradar, Minnesota has generated just 104 quarterback pressures, which ranks 30th in the NFL. (Detroit ranks 32nd with 99.) The Vikings 67 quarterback hits rank 29th, and their 22 sacks rank 26th. Ngakoue's 5.0 sacks still lead the team.
It will be interesting to see how many reps Lynch and Wonnum get in Detroit. Lynch, a former Baylor standout, has received limited playing time on defense but has shown glimpses when given the chance, recording his first career sack in Week 5 at Seattle.
Wonnum, whom the Vikings tabbed with the 117th overall pick, has impressed in his rookie campaign. He's tied for second on the team with 3.0 sacks and also has 21 tackles (press box stats), a pass defensed and a forced fumble.
If either or both Odenigbo or Holmes are unable to play Sunday, it's likely Wonnum will get his second career start and offer a preview of what the Vikings will have in 2021.
Who will make up the Vikings secondary?
Similarly to do the defensive line, Minnesota's secondary – primarily the cornerbacks group – had a new look in 2020.
The Vikings returned safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris but lacked depth.
At cornerback, it's seemingly been a revolving door due to injuries. Both outside spots and the nickel were vacated during the offseason, and the Vikings drafted Gladney and Dantzler to be immediate contributors. The rookies have experienced growing pains throughout their first season, and both have missed time due to getting banged up.
Dantzler and Gladney started eight games together as the Vikings outside corners. But entering the regular-season finale, Minnesota has started seven different combinations on the outside, including four different duos to start the season.
With Mike Hughes and Kris Boyd on Injured Reserve, and Dantzler (hamstring) and Chris Jones (groin) on this week's injury report, the Vikings are running thin at cornerback.
Gladney has bounced from the outside to the nickel spot in Minnesota's sub package. Will that continue?
Hand made the most of his opportunity last week by picking off Saints QB Drew Brees.
If Smith or Harris are rested at safety, look for coaches to take a look at rookie Josh Metellus, who thus far has played just 16 defensive snaps.
Will Minnesota's defense bounce back in Detroit?
Needless to say, the Vikings Week 16 game at New Orleans did not go well.
Minnesota's offense moved the ball well, but its defense allowed Brees and Co. to have a field day. In fact, the Saints 52 points were the most allowed by the Vikings since 1963, when they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 56-14.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer didn't mince words, calling the defense "the worst he's ever had." And while playoffs are no longer on the line, the defense's pride certainly is. As stated, injuries have decimated the unit – but Minnesota will look to bounce back at Detroit and end the season on a high note.
Lions Interim Head Coach Darrell Bevell said Thursday that QB Matthew Stafford's status for Sunday remains unknown, but the veteran passer "wants to be out there" despite dealing with rib and thumb injuries. He did note that receiver Kenny Golloday (hip) will not play.
Whichever Lions Bevell and his staff opt to feature in the Week 17 contest, though, the Vikings can make a positive statement before turning the page to the 2021 season.