For all the positives surrounding the Vikings’ 13-win season and first NFC North title since 2017, there is one area that looks to be badly in need of an upgrade.
The Vikings’ defense went from bad under former coach Mike Zimmer to largely worse under veteran coordinator Ed Donatell. First-year coach Kevin O’Connell doesn’t get complete absolution, considering he was the guy who hired Donatell to install a 3-4 scheme made popular by Vic Fangio, but O’Connell was hired to run the offense and find a coordinator to improve the defense.
Donatell’s failure to do so has put him on a very hot seat as the Vikings prepare to host the New York Giants in a wild card game on Sunday. “It’s our time to shine as a defense now that we’re hitting the playoffs,” Donatell told reporters on Thursday. “We intend to have success this year.”
There were some who felt an in-season change at defensive coordinator might be made as the Vikings’ struggles continued. Instead, O’Connell made it clear to Donatell that things needed to change. He wasn’t wrong.
A year after finishing 30th in total defense (383.6 yards allowed per game) in the 32-team NFL, the Vikings dropped to 31st (388.7). The Vikings made no improvement in scoring defense, giving up 25.1 points in 2021 and 2022, but dropping from 24th to a tie for 28th in that category.
O’Connell seems to be a patient man, at least compared to Zimmer, but his tolerance for ineptitude might have been tried once too often. The Vikings’ defense gave up more than 400 yards in nine of 17 games this season, including a high of 486 yards on three occasions. The Vikings went 2-1, beating the Bills and Jets but losing to the Eagles. Nonetheless, they made life far harder for themselves than it should have been.
The Giants were one of the teams that exceeded the 400-yard mark against the Vikings, accumulating 445 in a 27-24 loss on Christmas Eve at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones had one of his two 300-yard passing games this season, facing a unit that finished ranked 31st in the NFL in pass defense. Jones completed 30 of 42 attempts for 334 yards with a sack and a touchdown. Running back Saquon Barkley rushed for 84 yards on 14 carries and a 27-yard touchdown and also caught eight passes for 49 yards.
The Vikings won that game on Greg Joseph’s 61-yard field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter, but O’Connell will want to see a far more complete defensive effort on Sunday. The Giants are likely to rely more on the ground game this time — the mobile Jones had 34 yards on four scrambles on Dec. 24 — and hand the ball to Barkley more often.
This wouldn’t be a surprise to Donatell, but the question is whether he has a plan to stop it? O’Connell will be watching closely.
The fact O’Connell’s patience was wearing thin became clear after the Vikings’ 34-23 loss on Dec. 11 in Detroit. The Vikings surrendered 464 yards, marking a franchise-record fifth consecutive game in which they allowed 400 yards or more. Minnesota had no sacks or interceptions against Jared Goff and he threw two first-half touchdown passes of 40-plus yards.
Not great, considering Donatell’s scheme calls for taking away big pass plays with two-deep coverage and getting pressure with a four-man rush.
“We’ve got to take a look at what we can do to help our guys be in position to make more plays,” O’Connell said at the time. “Be a little more aggressive, possibly. I think we’ve got to generate some more rush, however we do it, and then just try to limit explosives.”
O’Connell told Fox analyst Mark Schlereth before the first Giants game that he had met with Donatell and told him, “Hey, here’s how I would attack your defense if I was scheming against it. … Be less predictable.”
Since that time, the Giants are the only team to go over 400 yards against Minnesota. Viking standout defensive end Danielle Hunter, who finished the season with a team-leading 10.5 sacks, had two against Jones. One of the most important things Sunday will be the play of Hunter and Za’Darius Smith, who had 10 sacks this season but only 1.5 since Week 9.
O’Connell was asked this week for his assessment of the defense since the loss in Detroit. “There’s never going to be a complete overhaul, but I’ve been happy with some of the adjustments, and I think we’re projecting forward to what we can continue to grow into and evolve into,” he said. “It’s really something that in all three phases of our team is important, but hoping to see those guys play their most complete game yet from the standpoint of defending the run and pass.”
Donatell’s job appears to be riding on the Vikings doing exactly that.
Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Purple Daily Podcast and Mackey & Judd podcast at www.skornorth.com