The 2021 Vikings struggled in a number of areas, and the run defense was one of the big ones. They allowed 4.7 yards per carry, which ranked 30th in the NFL. They were 26th in total rushing yards allowed per game, 25th in run defense DVOA, and 29th in rushing EPA per play allowed.
Thus, heading into the 2022 season, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see the Vikings near the bottom of any ranking of NFL run defenses. Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz, Mike Tanier, and Derrik Klassen recently put together a run defense tier listand they had the Vikings as one of four teams in the bottom (D) tier, along with the Giants, Chargers, and Falcons.
While the numbers from last season are impossible to ignore, it is worth wondering if the Vikings still deserve to be considered among the worst run defenses in the league after an offseason change. They fired Mike Zimmer and his staff and hired Kevin O’Connell, who brought Ed Donatell to the defensive coordinator and installed a new scheme. Personnel-wise, the Vikings replaced off-injured defensive tackle Michael Pierce with Harrison Phillips and off-injured linebacker Anthony Barr with Jordan Hicks. They also get Danielle Hunter back from injury after he missed the final ten games of the season.
The case for the Vikings’ run defense improving centers around Hunter’s season-long impact, as well as Phillips and Hicks being improvements from their predecessors – both in availability and performance.
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Hunter has been a strong edge-setter and general run defender during his career, so his return should provide a boost. Phillips ‘78.9 run defense grade (via PFF) last year with the Bills ranked sixth among qualified defensive tackles, and the Vikings’ other starting DT, Dalvin Tomlinson, has been a great run defender for most of his career. Because of Barr’s knee issues, Hicks is probably an upgrade in that area too. Eric Kendricks is known for his coverage ability, but he can get it done against the run as well.
“They’re probably not going to be great,” said Klassen, who appeared to be reacting to the rankings as though they were put together by one of the other hosts. “I think they might be a little bit better than this, just because I really do think a lot of what happened last year with the Vikings was just something stale with the whole Zimmer thing, they were just done with it. Obviously Danielle Hunter Anthony Barr really isn’t a good run defender anymore, so I think Jordan Hicks is probably an upgrade. willing to actually care about it. “
My view is that the Vikings don’t deserve to be in the top half of the league in anyone’s run defense, but they probably shouldn’t be at the very bottom either. I think Football Outsiders has a tier of them here, though I understand where they are coming from based on last year’s numbers.
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