We ask about the Vikings’ defense through three games, the injury status of RB Dalvin Cook, which rookie has looked good for Minnesota, and more.
On Sunday, the Cleveland Browns’ take on the Minnesota Vikings. To help preview a few topics from the Vikings’ perspective, we reached out to Eric Thompson from Daily Norseman and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: “The Vikings are a team that could easily be 3-0 if they had better luck. Aside from field goal kicking, though, Minnesota’s defense doesn’t rank too well through three games. What has been their biggest weakness?”
Eric: “There was a massive overhaul on the defensive side of the ball from 2020 to 2021 for the Vikings. And to be frank, there absolutely needed to be. The 2020 defense was terrible, which is very out of character for a Zimmer-led team. The addition of Michael Pierce, the return of former Viking (and former Brown) Sheldon Richardson, and free agent signing Dalvin Tomlinson were brought in to help shore up an atrocious run defense. Bashaud Breeland, Patrick Peterson, and Xavier Woods highlighted an overhauled secondary. Nick Vigil replaced Eric Wilson as the linebacker that plays while Anthony Barr is hurt. Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen both returned as edge rushers, from injury and Detroit respectively. And yet, the defense has been pretty lousy overall through three games.
With so many new pieces, it was probably unrealistic to go back to being a top 10 defense right away. However, there have been a few players that have underperformed. Breeland has been a disaster, ranking dead last out of 100 qualifying cornerbacks in PFF grade through three games. Peterson has been decent, but nothing like his previous All-Pro form, and probably not what you want from your top corner. Edge rusher D.J. Wonnum showed flashes last year, but hasn’t made much of an impact at all despite Hunter getting a lot of attention from opposing offenses.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom for the defense. Most of the damage done against them in the first two games was from bad lapses that led to huge scoring plays before halftime. They allowed 17 points in the first three drives last week, but then proceeded to shut out the Seahawks for the remainder of the game. I think this defense will continue to improve, but exactly how much they improve will determine how successful the team can be.”
Chris: “What is your vibe on Dalvin Cook and whether he should play this Sunday against the Browns? Same question for first-round pick Christian Darrisaw — will he make his debut?”
Eric: “Cook is officially listed as questionable, and Darrisaw wasn’t even on the final Week 4 injury report after his first full week of practice in the NFL. However, it sounds like Cook has a much better chance of playing than Darrisaw on Sunday. The Vikings’ star running back claims to be around 90% back from the ankle injury that sidelined him against the Seahawks, and all reports on Friday seem to point to him playing.
While Darrisaw may be physically cleared, I wouldn’t expect him to get thrown to the wolves named Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney after basically having no rookie preseason thanks to his injuries. There’s a chance Darrisaw may be active, but I’m guessing Rashod Hill will still be the starter at left tackle for at least another week or two. If Cook can’t go, the cupboard isn’t bare at backup running back—Alexander Mattison performed admirably as the lead back last week.”
Chris: “Former Browns DT Sheldon Richardson is a member of the Vikings’ front in 2021. What type of role has Richardson played amidst the defensive line rotation?”
Eric: “Defensive tackles in Mike Zimmer’s defenses are notoriously hard to evaluate. Most of the time, they’re depended upon as gap fillers that take up space and occupy offensive linemen so the linebackers and safeties behind them can make plays. So while a defensive tackle may not put up gaudy pressure and run stop numbers, they can still make an impact that doesn’t show up in the box score or analytics.
That said, I think most Vikings fans expected more from Richardson’s return in both snap count and impact. Richardson definitely seems to be the third man in the defensive tackle rotation, seeing only 71 snaps this season compared to 110 for Tomlinson and 99 for Pierce. The Vikings still seem to be trying to find the best fit for Richardson in his second stint with the team, and they have even lined him up on each end a handful of times. He’ll definitely be in the mix on Sunday, but if the first three games are any indication, you may not notice much.”
Chris: “Which rookie on the Vikings has made the biggest contribution this year?”
Eric: “This can kind of be considered a trick question so far. Through the first three games, none of the eleven players that the Vikings have drafted have made much of an impact. We already talked about Darrisaw. Third round quarterback Kellen Mond was always a developmental pick, and the Vikings seem to be giving him the Jordan Love treatment in year 1.
Wyatt Davis was supposed to compete for a starting guard position, but the emergence of Oli Udoh as a serviceable right guard—which is a HUGE deal in these parts based on what has been trotted out in previous seasons—has allowed the Vikings to bring Davis along more slowly. Kene Nwangwu showed promise, especially as a returner, but he got hurt and had to start the season on IR. He could see return duties soon now that he’s back practicing. Defensive end Janarius Robinson went out for the season in late August. Ihmir Smith-Marsette looked like a contender for the third wide receiver role, but the emergence of second-year wideout K.J. Osborn kept Smith-Marsette on the bench. Jalen Twyman got shot before the season and is on the NFI list.
Even after all of that, it’s pretty disappointing to see no major contributions from rookies through the first three weeks. Chazz Surratt and Camryn Bynum have only played special teams. Third round defensive end Patrick Jones II hasn’t played at all yet. So to answer your question: none of the above, I guess?”
Chris: “Tell us about one player who Browns fans may not have heard of, but who could have an impact on this Sunday’s game.”
Eric: “Browns fans may have heard of right tackle Brian O’Neill because he got a big contract extension before the season. But what the heck, they only see the Vikings once every four years and I rarely get to talk about Vikings offensive line play in a positive light. According to PFF, O’Neill has played 136 pass blocking snaps this season and allowed exactly zero (0) pressures. Of course, that flawless record will be put to the test with the bookends that the Browns boast on their defensive line. But O’Neill and first year starter Udoh have combined to form a remarkably dependable right side of the offensive line this season, which has done wonders for the Vikings offense.
We can debate the merits of Kirk Cousins’ play relative to his salary until we’re blue in the face—that activity happens to be the favorite pastime of Vikings Twitter—but there is little doubt that Cousins is an excellent quarterback when he has a clean pocket and the offense can run on schedule. Thanks to O’Neill’s excellence and the rest of the offensive line being much less of a train wreck this year, Cousins has put together the best opening stretch of his career. If O’Neill can help neutralize Garrett and Clowney when they’re lined up across from him, it will do wonders for the Vikings’ chances on Sunday.”
Thanks again to Eric for taking the time to answer my questions.