The 2020 Vikings defensive line effectively lost three Pro Bowlers before the first snap of the season.
Everson Griffen voided his contract to pursue the market, and Linval Joseph was released in March because Minnesota was cash strapped.
The Vikings tried to replace Joseph with Michael Pierce, a mammoth nose tackle who played his first four seasons with the Ravens, but the big man opted out because of COVID-19 concerns.
Minnesota still figured it could rely on Danielle Hunter's production to continue to cause problems for passers. After all, he had posted back-to-back seasons with 14.5 sacks and become the NFL's youngest player (25 years, 40 days) to record 50 career sacks (stat became official in 1982).
View the best defensive line photos of the 2020 season from Vikings photographers.
Hunter, however, suffered a neck injury that was initially believed to be a "tweak" after participating in a non-padded practice as training camp opened. It was much worse than anyone hoped and eventually led to season-ending surgery.
When the Vikings were remaining optimistic that Hunter would only be sidelined for part of the season, Minnesota traded to acquire Yannick Ngakoue from Jacksonville, envisioning an impactful tandem. The Ngakoue experience was short-lived (six games before he was dealt to Baltimore), but his 5.0 sacks led Minnesota on the season.
All of the departures/absences led to the Vikings asking Shamar Stephen to play nose tackle. Stephen continued to play with dependable fundamentals, but the shift from teaming up with a bigger player like Pierce or Joseph hindered his impact.
Stephen primarily was joined on the interior by Jaleel Johnson. A trio of backups who also played on the interior entered 2020 with 13 combined games of NFL experience: Armon Watts (seven games), Hercules Mata'afa (six games) and James Lynch (a rookie).
On the edge, the Vikings turned to the combination of Ifeadi Odenigbo, whose snaps virtually doubled from 2019, and Jalyn Holmes as the starting defensive ends. When both of those players were out for the final game of the season, Minnesota opened with rookie D.J. Wonnum and Mata'afa at defensive end.
Three of Eddie Yarbrough's four games were in the Vikings final five weeks of the season. Jordan Brailford forced and recovered a fumble in his NFL debut against Jacksonville and appeared sparingly in the final five games of the season.
5.0 — The 5.0 sacks by Ngakoue tied for the fewest to lead the Vikings in any season.
The only other seasons with 5.0 sacks as the max total for a Viking involved ties among teammates: 1980 (Doug Martin, Mark Mullaney and Doug Sutherland), 1984 (Randy Holloway and Charlie Johnson) and 2007 (Ray Edwards, Ben Leber and Kenechi Udeze).
Vikings fans know the threat that Aaron Rodgers can pose via Hail Mary heaves in the final minute of a half or game. When the ball leaves the hand of the Packers QB, it's a moment on the edge, but in Week 8, Wonnum hustled and sacked Rodgers to force a fumble before the quarterback could launch a deep pass. Linebacker Eric Wilson recovered the ball to end the game and protect a 28-22 Vikings victory in the only home loss by the Packers during the 2020 regular season.
Note: All snap counts are on defense
16 games (16 starts); 654 snaps (60.9 percent); 44 tackles (22 solo), 1.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits
14 games (9 starts); 617 snaps (57.4 percent); 36 tackles (16 solo), 2 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback hits, 2 passes defensed
15 games (15 starts); 696 snaps (64.8 percent); 35 tackles (16 solo), 3.5 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits
16 games (16 starts); 662 snaps (61.6 percent); 34 tackles (20 solo), 0.5 sack, 2 tackles for loss, 3 quarterback hits
16 games (0 starts); 392 snaps (36.5 percent); 31 tackles (12 solo), 0.5 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 2 quarterback hits
14 games (2 starts); 471 snaps (43.9 percent); 24 tackles (16 solo), 3.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 8 quarterback hits, 1 pass defensed, 1 forced fumble
13 games (1 start); 293 snaps (27.3 percent); 24 tackles (12 solo), 2.5 sacks, 3 tackles for loss, 6 quarterback hits
6 games (5 starts); 310 snaps (28.9 percent); 12 tackles (12 solo), 5.0 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 7 quarterback hits, 2 forced fumbles
4 games (0 starts); 83 snaps (7.7 percent); 8 tackles (5 solo), 1 quarterback hit
9 games (0 starts); 59 snaps (5.5 percent); 3 tackles (2 solo), 1.0 sack, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit
5 games (0 starts); 34 snaps (3.2 percent); 2 tackles (2 solo), 1 quarterback hit, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
1. Stingy at Soldier Field
The Vikings took advantage of the absence of Bears running back David Montgomery in Week 10 on Monday Night Football. Minnesota limited Chicago to 41 yards on 17 rushes (2.4 yards per carry) with a long of 6. Former Vikings receiver and return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson led the Bears with 30 rushing yards on 12 carries.
The Vikings were able to pressure quarterback Nick Foles consistently throughout the night, limiting him to 15-of-26 passing for 106 yards and a passer rating of 51.1. Mata'afa and Wonnum each recorded three quarterback hits in the only game that Minnesota recorded double digits in 2020.
2. Down to the wire
Minnesota also played well — good enough to win, for sure — at Seattle in Week 5. The Vikings defensive line mostly contained Russell Wilson, recording three of Minnesota's four sacks on a night when the Seahawks went 0-for-7 on third downs. Wilson was able to land a pair of passes on fourth downs, however, to avoid the upset.
1. The Saints marched
The Vikings defense was missing even more players when Minnesota visited New Orleans on Christmas Day. In addition to injuries up front, the Vikings also were short-handed at linebacker.
Minnesota was unable to stop the run, allowing 264 yards and seven scores on 45 runs by New Orleans. Throw in 319 passing yards by the Saints, and the 583 net yards allowed are the most by a Vikings defense in any game.
2. Woes at home
Playing without fans in the stands, the Vikings struggled to affect visiting passers throughout the season at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota totaled 10 sacks in eight home games. The season-long output isn't customary for a team that recorded 10 sacks of Matthew Stafford in one 2018 home game. Earlier this offseason, we covered how road teams in 2020 fared better than ever before across the NFL.
"A priority for me is that we continue to get more pass rushers. 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, and like we've done in the past, we've had Brian Robison line up in there and rush the passer, Stephen Weatherly or a whole bunch of different guys that can do different things."
— Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer when asked about creating more pressure from the 3-technique position
"He's on track wherever he's supposed to be. I know he thinks he's going to be able to come back and be better than he was before."
— Zimmer on Hunter
"To be honest, I think it was probably a disappointing year for everybody, including me. Obviously, we all had these big expectations on what this season was going to be. But with COVID and everything, guys got hurt, just the defense never really found its groove or had an identity. Obviously, this offseason, whatever happens with the Vikings and everything, everybody's got to look back and see what we can improve."
"That's the one thing I've learned from my long time coaching in this league is, there's no guarantees in this league. Each year is different; you've got to see how the guys come back, and you've got to start to evaluate it all over again as a coach. You can't just say that a guy did A, B and C during the course of this season, so next year he's going to be this. It doesn't work that way. You have to wait for them to come back, see how much improvement they've made in getting stronger and faster and quicker, those kinds of things, and then you go and you evaluate it from there."
— Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson
Pressing Questions for 2021
1. Does Hunter return to form?
Hunter had become almost automatic, starting 48 consecutive games and appearing in 78 of 80 possible in his first five seasons. He's had three seasons with at least 12.5 sacks but has shown he's much more than just a pass rusher. The balance in his game is impressive.
2. Will Pierce be rusty?
Replacing Joseph is no small order, but the Vikings thought Pierce was going to be able to make a big impact as a newcomer. Will he be rusty or raring to go?
3. How can the young players apply lessons learned in 2020?
Classroom work is one thing, and virtual learning is another, but there's no substitute for in-game lessons. It will be critical for Minnesota's younger players to take steps forward and apply their experiences from 2020.