EAGAN, Minn. -- The NFC North will be one of the more intriguing divisions in the NFL this year, largely because all the offseason drama surrounding Green Bay might create more opportunities for other teams to shine. The Minnesota Vikings happen to be one squad that should be thinking about capitalizing. They struggled last year with injuries and inconsistency. Now they're hoping a revamped defense can remind people of what they actually can be at full strength.
The most stunning aspect of the Vikings' problems in 2020 -- when they finished 7-9 after reaching the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs a year earlier -- was the demise of that defense. It has been the foundation of everything head coach Mike Zimmer has built in that franchise, and it unraveled in every way imaginable. Minnesota lost star players (including defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr) to injuries, watched another important cog (defensive tackle Michael Pierce) opt out because of COVID-19 and failed to find enough reliable play from a crop of younger talent. The end result was a unit that couldn't stop anybody, as it allowed 29.7 points per game (29th in the league) and 134.4 rushing yards (27th).
The Vikings aren't trying to distance themselves from those numbers this year. They're using them as ample motivation, evidence of how hard they need to work to return to the level of play they expect.
"We want to get back to us," said co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer during a recent interview in training camp. "Stopping the run. Getting after the quarterback. We weren't very good in any of those areas. So this year is definitely about getting back to us."
To understand how far the Vikings' defense fell last season, just consider that this was a team that had never ranked lower than 11th in points allowed during Mike Zimmer's first six seasons at the helm. Three of those years included playoff appearances (2015, 2017 and 2019) and two involved division titles (2015 and 2017). Defense is simply what they do in those parts. That's the biggest reason why the Vikings have been so adamant about adding new faces.
The defensive line received a boost from the free-agent acquisition of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson. The secondary went through a dramatic makeover, with the signings of safety Xavier Woods and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Mackensie Alexander and Bashaud Breeland. Just as critical is the return of Hunter and Barr -- both of whom have appeared in multiple Pro Bowls -- and the debut of Pierce. The Vikings signed Pierce to a three-year, $27 million free-agent deal in 2020, about four months before he decided to sit out the season.
Typically, a team with so much change is hard to bet on. The encouraging aspect of this bunch is that it includes plenty of savvy veterans who are joining a team that has thrived on that side of the ball when healthy.
"We were a really young unit last year," said safety Harrison Smith. "We brought in some vets through free agency, and the young guys have grown up a bit. Right now, you obviously start at square one. But the chemistry is pretty solid right now. There's a lot of good communication. Guys are flying around and playing without having to think too much."
What's telling about the Vikings is that the changes aren't solely about finding better players to play in the same schemes. It's about an open-minded approach to altering the entire process. There's been talk about mixing in some 3-4 looks -- Mike Zimmer has traditionally relied on a 4-3 scheme -- and the players have been grateful for the approaches taken by Adam Zimmer and co-defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Andre Patterson.
Said Barr: "What I like is how open they are to hearing us out as players. It's not just about doing things their way and that's it. That's traditionally how it is in some places. They're more open to hear how we feel and what we're seeing on the field. They're (ultimately) going to call what they want, but they clearly value our input. That empowers us as players, that they want to listen to us. And that's how you build chemistry, by trusting people."
Barr added that he's seen even a noteworthy change in his head coach. Mike Zimmer is reputed for his stern, curmudgeonly personality, a mindset that has certainly set the tone for the blue-collar culture he's created in Minnesota. What Barr sees now is a coach who's laughing more and showing his lighter side in ways that have been beneficial. When asked when Barr noticed the change, he joked, "It was about the time that Danielle came back."
"I'd say he's been very positive this year," Barr said of his head coach. "I won't say it's uncharacteristic of him, but he's learning that that mood is helpful. Players can feel the energy and generate that same vibe he puts out. It's been good to see him smile and be positive. That's obviously going to change the minute we give up a touchdown or lose a game, but that positivity is a big thing for us."
It's likely that Mike Zimmer's joy really is related to looking out on a training camp field and seeing all the possibilities that didn't exist for much of last year. Hunter had 29 total sacks in 2018 and 2019 and didn't play a down in 2020 because of surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. Barr went on injured reserve with a torn pec in Week 2. He took a pay cut to stay with the team this offseason instead of allowing his seven-year tenure in Minnesota to end on such a bad note.
There also have been nice surprises in camp so far. Pierce, a strong run-stopper, has proven to be a more adept pass rusher than the Vikings anticipated. Woods has turned heads with his athleticism, range and ability to mesh with Smith so quickly at safety.
"We've restocked," Smith said. "This is one of the most talented groups I've been a part of, from the defensive line to the linebackers to the secondary. As long as we can get that chemistry going and keep improving on that, we definitely have a shot."
That's the general vibe around the Vikings this summer. They realize there were some bad breaks a season ago, and that there was plenty of humiliation that followed it. Adam Zimmer, for one, specifically mentioned that 52-33 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Christmas Day, when the Vikings surrendered a jaw-dropping 583 yards, 264 of which came on the ground.
"That leaves a sour taste in your mouth," Zimmer said. "And we never want to feel that again."
The Vikings have enough talent on the roster to fulfill that promise. The real question is whether it's enough to help them return to the postseason and challenge the Packers. After all, this is the time of year when it's worth searching for teams flying under the radar. From everything happening around Minnesota, the Vikings definitely are a squad that falls into that category.