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Best Help for Vikings Defense? Experts Say Boosting Pass Rush

The consensus of experts this week at the NFL Scouting Combine was that the Vikings will be inclined to use the 12th overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft to help the defense.

It's not shocking to project Minnesota would quickly try to boost a unit that ranked 24th in scoring and 30th in yards allowed, as well as first downs gained by opponents in 2021.

The 4,300 passing yards allowed ranked 28th, and the 29 passing touchdowns thrown by foes ranked 22nd.

The Vikings offset those to a degree by recording 51 sacks and 16 interceptions. The sacks total tied for the second most in one season by a Minnesota team (since 1982), matching the 1992 squad but ending 20 shy of the whopping 71 by the 1989 Vikings. The interceptions total was the second-highest since 2006 when Minnesota recorded 21 picks and was one shy of matching the 17 nabbed by the 2019 team.

Yet, there were too many times — particularly in the final two minutes of halves — when the pass rush couldn't affect quarterbacks at critical junctures, or the coverage wasn't good enough to prevent completions.

Get a behind-the-scenes look of GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and Head Coach Kevin O'Connell at the 2022 NFL Combine in Indianapolis.

With that in mind, would experts place more value on bolstering the pass rush or the back end of the defense?

"I am so old-school, my automatic go-to is solid pass rush," CBS and NFL Network analyst Charles Davis told Vikings Radio Network's Ben Leber. "That's what it's always been. But it's really interesting to me that in recent years, teams have prioritized a lockdown corner.

"And what's been interesting has been the explanation for it," said Davis, who played safety in college at Tennessee. "I remember talking with a defensive coordinator and I was like, 'I still think the pass rush.' He said, 'You're not wrong, but think about how fast that ball's getting out of a quarterback's hands nowadays. … I mean, it's catch, rock and fire. Catch, rock and fire. Now, I'm still old-school. It's hard to get me off of it. I still want that monster guy. I still want that Myles Garrett. When Danielle Hunter's at the top of his game, I still want Danielle Hunter."

Hunter, of course, missed the final 10 games of the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle, and he missed all of 2020 after suffering a neck injury in that year's training camp before Vikings players donned pads.

In his chat with Davis, Leber pointed out the role of the pass rush for the past two Super Bowl winners. Although Tampa Bay finished with a modest three sacks against Kansas City in LV, the Buccaneers affected Patrick Mahomes throughout the game. Last month, the Los Angeles Rams tied a Super Bowl record with seven sacks and forced an incompletion on Cincinnati's final offensive snap.

"I'm with you on that one. And here's the other thing, too – the way these defenses are playing … they want the front four to win, and then you can play games with the back seven. So you can help your corners," Davis said. "But if you have a front four that can win? Now, let's face it – we don't all have Aaron Donald breaking down the interior, but that interior pass rusher and off the edge? You can create some damage."

Vikings cornerbacks also missed time in 2021 for various reasons, and there are multiple pending free agents with that group.

NBC Sports' Chris Simms, who started 16 of the 23 NFL games he played from 2004-09, said pass rushers weigh more on the minds of a QB than a corner. He relayed to Leber his experience of preparing for snaps with defensive end Julius Peppers "in his prime" on the other side of the line.

"I was literally like, 'Blue 45' and looking out of the corner of my eye every time I said a word," Simms said. "I was literally saying 'Set, hut' and taking a peek as I would pull out, just to go and see what kind of jump he got – especially if you didn't have a good right tackle. So that, to me, would be the thing I would look at.

"The DB thing, look, we know you need 'em," Simms added. "You've got to play man-to-man in certain situations in football right now, especially against the great offenses, because the quarterbacks and the receivers are too good, the systems are too good, they're going to pick apart zone coverage. So you do need that.

"I guess what I look at, too, that takes away from the DB case in point here, a little bit – the offensive coordinators, the Kevin O'Connells of the world, they're so good at getting their best receiver in a position to where now the best corner can't really cover him. Or he can't bump him because we put him in the slot," Simms added. "So that's, to me, where I edge on the pass rush. But it's gotta be the right value at that point, too."

View photos at Head Coach Kevin O'Connell at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

The two also discussed the potential of Minnesota using more 3-4 alignments and principles under new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell after decades of going with a 4-3 base in which Leber played linebacker from 2006-10.

"I think it's cool they're going to the 3-4, honestly. … I think it's more of a pain … for offenses. There are just more things to worry about with the 3-4 fronts," Simms said. "There's a little bit more versatility in what they do; it messes with how a guy like Kevin O'Connell – this is probably why he likes Ed Donatell, because he goes, 'Man, when I organize game plans and our running attack for the 3-4, there's just so many different ways they can line up, too, within that, that gives offenses issues. It's cloudy.

"And the same with the blitz packages," Simms added. "It's like, 'Wait, there's four linebackers; there's three linemen. Whoa, there's a different [number] of combinations they can bring.' But within that, you have to change around your personnel."

O'Connell, Minnesota's newly hired head coach, and Donatell downplayed a complete overhaul of the defense, pointing to the frequency that teams are in the nickel defense.

NFL Media analyst and former defensive back Bucky Brooks agreed while discussing Hunter's potential role during an interview with Vikings Entertainment Network's Gabe Henderson.

"It's all, like, semantics. People talk about 4-3, 3-4, but in reality, 70 percent of the game is going to be nickel coverage. So when you think about nickel coverage, nickel defense, [Hunter is] going to put his hand down and he's going to come off the edge," Brooks said. "Maybe on early downs, maybe on first downs, he'll stand up on occasion. But good coaches? They're going to have their pass rushers rush. So he may stand up and everybody's like, 'Oh, he's an outside linebacker.' But he's coming most of the time. So he'll figure it out.

View photos from QB, WR and TE workouts at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

"And maybe it frees Danielle Hunter up – maybe he is able to do it from a 2-point stance," Brooks added. "But I think at the end of the day, you want guys that can sack the quarterback to get after the quarterback. I don't think you'll get too cute trying to figure out how to put him in coverage just because it says it's a 3-4."

Returning Hunter will be a big step forward for Minnesota's pass rush, and it will probably reverberate to the point of helping the secondary in coverage, but expect the Vikings to try to bolster both aspects of their defense through free agency or the draft.