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Vikings Defense Shuts Down Notion of Lower Expectations

EAGAN, Minn. — Harrison Smith is entering his ninth season in Purple, which makes him the eldest statesman on the Vikings defense.

The Pro Bowl safety has seen a bit of everything in his time in Minnesota, whether it was the unit ranking dead last in points allowed in 2013 … or being a key part of a defense that led the league in points allowed in 2017.

As Smith enters the 2020 season as the defensive player with the most experience in Minnesota, he has taken notice of the handful of new faces around him.

But in typical Smith fashion — one that aligns with his tough, no-nonsense demeanor — the safety isn't ready to accept the fact that the Vikings defense will suddenly be a liability after six straight seasons of being among the league's best.

"I guess I've kind of been out of the loop – I didn't know we were supposed to be bad," Smith recently said on a video chat with the Twin Cities media. "So yeah, I guess that motivates me. Everybody takes things differently. People are going to say things no matter what, so I just try to play well.

"If you want to talk about it, that's cool; if you don't, that's cool," Smith added. "I think if we all just play well, then we'll win games, and you can say good or bad, and that's it."

To be fair, the Vikings defense will look different than in years' past. Household names and veterans such as Linval Joseph, Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander are no longer on the roster.

To put that in context, that quintet of players produced a combined 281 starts, nine Pro Bowl appearances, 62.5 sacks, 19 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries over the past five seasons.

But Smith is still on the squad, as he forms arguably the league's top safety duo with Anthony Harris. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr might be the best linebacker tandem in a nickel defense, and Danielle Hunter has started his career by simply becoming the youngest player to 50 sacks.

Kendricks recently noted that he recognizes the turnover on the roster but countered there are still plenty of high-caliber names that can still perform at an elite level.

"We have a lot of guys who are obviously new, but we have a lot of guys who have been doing it at the highest level for a long time. They have those examples," Kendricks said. "The guys like myself and Harrison Smith and Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter, Anthony Harris, you can go down the line.

"We have one goal, we're all on the same page," Kendricks added. "And I feel like the young guys naturally see how we are, how we act, and it's OK for them to feel that confidence. It's like everybody's swimming in the same direction and it gets them that confidence."

On the defensive line, defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo appears to be in line to replace Griffen. Michael Pierce was signed during free agency to replace Joseph but has opted-out of 2020 because of health concerns.

Co-Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson said the Vikings could use a combination at the defensive tackle spots, pointing out that the system sometimes asks the nose tackle to play at the 3-technique and vice versa.

"I'm looking at all the options," Patterson said. "The beauty here is: Because of the way we play our noses have to know how to play 3-technique and our 3-technique has to know how to play nose because the offense can make those guys have to play those roles. As we go through practice, they all have to learn how to play nose and how to play 3.

"I'm going to put the best combination out there that gives us the best opportunity to succeed," Patterson said. "Shamar [Stephen] is going to take reps at nose, Jaleel [Johnson] is going to take reps at nose, Armon Watts is going to take reps at nose, James [Lynch], so is Hercules [Mata'afa] and the same with 3-technique. When it's all said and done and we go through the evaluation at camp, I'm going to put the best two D-tackles out there that give us the best opportunity to be successful."

All of those players, except Lynch, have game experience in Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's defense, as do cornerbacks Mike Hughes and Holton Hill, two players who would start in the secondary.

Rookie Jeff Gladney, a 2020 first-round pick, is another name who could challenge for a starting spot along with the likes of Kris Boyd, rookie Cameron Dantzler and others.

Smith said there could be some growing pains for that group as they learn in grow, but he added he has plenty of confidence in their talent and abilities.

"We have a lot of guys who are new, kind of have clean slates but a ton of talent," Smith said. "[We have] smart guys, smart coaches. A lot of people who want to win and who want to be great football players and a great defense.

"So, I think it's good to have that mix. It's good to have some new faces every now and then," Smith added. "It kind of keeps us old guys, I guess, you try to teach a little bit more, you realize areas that you need to get better at."

Added Kendricks: "I feel like these young guys have an opportunity. They have an opportunity to get in and make a big splash. You can take it one way and be nervous or feeling a little bit anxious about it. Or you can take it as a challenge and a have chip on your shoulder. I take it as a challenge and I feel like we're always going to rise to that. We don't see it in that light. We have a job to do and we want to be the best in the league. That's our goal."

Minnesota's defense will be a work in progress throughout training camp as starting spots are earned and playing time gets figured out, but a nucleus of proven players remains.

And for the three main coaches in charge of the defense, they know it will be on them to help get the defense ready to meet the lofty expectations that have been set in Zimmer's tenure with the Vikings.

But Zimmer, Patterson and Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Adam Zimmer also embrace the challenge of proving people wrong, as the underdog role is one that suits the Vikings just fine.

"We've always been that way. The two of us have always been that way," Patterson said of Mike Zimmer and himself. "I think that motivates us to do our job, and usually the guys we bring into the program have that same mindset, too. They look forward to the challenge.

"Every year you have to earn how good you are. It doesn't carry over. You start from ground zero, you play 16 games, and when it's all over and done, you look and see how well you have done," Patterson added. "It's definitely a motivation for me, and I would expect it's a motivation for our players also."

Zimmer's six seasons in Minnesota have been highlighted by defensive continuity while the offense has endured ups and downs.

Is this the year that script switches and it's the defense that hits some bumps in the road?

When asked what it was like for the offense to be ahead of the defense, Zimmer fired back, "Well, we'll just have to see if that happens."

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