EAGAN, Minn. — Away from football for the first time since age 4, Michael Pierce developed a weekly Sunday morning routine to help cure his restlessness.
He got in a ride on his Peloton, hit the sauna and went to church before settling in at home with a plate of food and a glass of wine to watch the Vikings.
The mammoth defensive tackle was supposed to be a key piece in the middle of the Vikings defense, a prized free agent addition from Baltimore who could stuff the run and help free up linebackers while also providing leadership in the locker room.
And while everyone certainly supported his decision to opt out of the 2020 season due to his upper-respiratory health and the risk posed by COVID-19, it's also not a stretch to say that Pierce's presence was vastly missed on a defense that turned in its worst performance in seven seasons under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer.
Even Pierce himself said the struggles of the unit weighed on him.
"Obviously from a personal standpoint, I do feel responsible about some of the stuff that happened last year," Pierce said. "It was a tough situation. Like I said, injuries, everybody understands that … but the opt-out thing was just something new to football in general.
"We had a rough year last year, but everybody seems upbeat and happy for me to be here," Pierce added. "That's amazing for me, and I'm ready to roll."
Pierce visited Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center for the first time earlier this week, impressing coaches with an on-field workout and also getting a look at his new workspace.
He also chatted with Twin Cities media members about how he spent the year away, a span that included picking up the piano and adopting Princeton, a poodle he referred to as his son.
But a significant portion of Pierce's media session also focused on the impact he hopes to make on Minnesota's defense in 2021 and beyond.
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said earlier this offseason that Pierce's return was like adding a marquee free agent, even if he was signed in 2020. And Zimmer sounded outright giddy about the chance to work with Pierce in his scheme.
Pierce said he envisions himself filling a role similar to the one that Linval Joseph held from 2014-19. Joseph was a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the most feared defensive tackles in the league in that span under the tutelage of defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who has been promoted to assistant head coach and will continue to lead the group.
View photos of the Vikings 2021 coaching staff.
"The way I look at it, and I've studied Linval the last few years even before I got any interest from the Vikings, they kind of play the nose the same way," Pierce said of how his skill set fits in with the Vikings. "They also do allow them to do more things in the pass rush game than we would, say in Baltimore, but that depends on scheme and all that kind of stuff, without getting too technical.
"Especially with the Ravens, like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and those guys, those guys drive that defense. Obviously they've had [Everson Griffen] here, we still have Danielle [Hunter], but no, they depend on the nose tackles to do stuff in the pass game as well as the run game, and that's kind of where I came here," Pierce added. "Obviously Coach Dre does an amazing job with defensive linemen and specifically with Linval. That's kind of what I want to mold myself after, being a dominant nose guard in the run game but also getting to the passer and rounding my game out."
Perhaps the biggest area Pierce is expected to help bolster in the Vikings run defense, which ranked 27th in 2020 in rushing yards allowed per game (134.3).
View photos of DT Michael Pierce who toured TCO Performance Center and the Vikings Museum for the first time.
Minnesota also gave up at least 95 rushing yards in all but one game in 2020. And the team allowed 100-plus rushing yards in 12 of 16 games.
The lowlight 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.
Pierce himself referenced the Christmas Day game against the Saints as one that motivated him to return in fine form and help the Vikings defense get back to the usual standard under Zimmer.
"Obviously, I pride myself on being one of the better defensive tackles in this league. I saw a lot of plays I felt like I could've made and helped personally, but it's a long season," Pierce said. "[Christmas] was rough. … But outside of that, man, I think it gave a lot of those guys, there was growing pains for sure, but reps in this league are invaluable. And as younger players, even when I was in my second year in the league, those reps were invaluable, and it made a difference in my third year and my fourth year and going on forward.
"It builds confidence, just being on the field, for those young guys, but as far as me and the free agency moves that we made, it's been amazing," Pierce added. "So, we'll get a lot of guys back healthy this year, obviously with Danielle and Anthony Barr and those guys. Dalvin Tomlinson will be next to me. That's a big, big, big-time get for me and for our defensive front. I'm super excited."
Tomlinson's signing in March means the Vikings have will two new starting defensive tackles for 2021.
And Pierce said even though they both are defensive tackles, they each bring a different skill set that should hopefully make them one of the top interior duos across the league.
"Obviously, Dalvin was a top priority for us [in free agency]. I knew what was going on the whole time," Pierce said. "Like I said, I played next to Brandon Williams, another nose guard [in Baltimore], so as far as that goes, I think it'll be great. We had one of the top run defenses in Baltimore.
"I've always kind of known what we had going on, what we were looking forward to doing in free agency. They've done a great job keeping me a part of the loop, but it'll be a great time to compete against [Tomlinson] and actually learn from him," Pierce added. "Until you're done and retired, I don't think you can quit learning, and he's done a great job being a nose guard and getting sacks, something I haven't been the best at. I'm going to learn from him, and I'm sure he can take some things from me, so it'll be a beneficial relationship for both of us."
Pierce established himself as a critical piece on one of the league's most consistent defenses from 2016-19 in Baltimore. In that span, the Ravens finished no worse than ninth in points allowed and were seventh or better in yards allowed in three of four seasons.
Minnesota's defense obviously did not have the same success in 2020, as the Vikings finished 29th overall with 29.7 points allowed per game and ranked 27th with 393.3 yards allowed per game.
But with Pierce finally in the fold for 2021, the hope is that the 341-pound defensive tackle makes a major impact once autumn rolls around.
"Last year was an outlier for this team. I saw them in 2017 when they were No. 1 in the league," Pierce said. "I've always played on top defenses … but injuries happened to this team last year. Anthony Barr is a Pro Bowl-caliber guy. Danielle Hunter, All-Pro-caliber guy. So when you miss those two guys, let alone a run-stopper and all these other things, some things are going to happen that aren't characteristic to what you're accustomed to seeing from a Vikings defense.
"We brought in Pat Peterson – that's only going to help our young corners grow exponentially. … I'm going to bring some knowledge to the nose guard room. Dalvin's great in his own right, so he's going to bring knowledge. And we're all going to work together," Pierce continued. "EK (Eric Kendricks) is an All-Pro. Harrison Smith. I could go on and on. But like I said, the additions and the health that we're going to bring to the field this season, I think it's going to be a lot more reminiscent of what you guys are used to.
"That's why I signed here, to play on another great defense. With everybody healthy and the additions we made … I think we're going to be really good. The work has to get put in, the chemistry has to come and everybody has to jell," Pierce added. "On paper everything looks good. It's just about how we jell, go through the offseason, camp, all that good stuff. Once Week 1 hits, we'll see what the product is. But as far as right now, I think we're looking more like what you guys are accustomed to seeing."