Why isn't the Vikings' spending on rush defense paying off?

EAGAN, Minn. -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer scoffed at the notion that the run defense is a problem following a 14-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

For a fourth straight week, Minnesota got gashed on the ground. This time, they allowed a season-high 184 rushing yards to the Browns after giving up 106 to Seattle, 103 to Arizona and 149 to Cincinnati.

Zimmer leaned on his 27 years of NFL coaching experience to show why he’s not discouraged “one bit about the lack of stopping the run” and that those pressing him are too concerned about what the numbers reveal, like Cleveland breaking off nearly five yards per rush.

“I know all you guys are all stat guys, but when you look at it, what did they have? Seventy-eight plays? You’re going to have some of those where you’re going to get some yards, and that team is probably as good of a running team as there is in the league,” Zimmer said. “They were pulling the guard and the tackle, two guards, there was a lot of extra blockers coming over there, and we were in shell a lot during the day. I know everybody’s concerned about it, but I’m not.”

The Vikings spent millions this offseason to upgrade their defense with a heavy emphasis placed on stopping the run. They shelled out $20.8 million in total guarantees to defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson so they could play him next to nose tackle Michael Pierce and create an impenetrable force in the middle of the defensive line. It also why they redid Anthony Barr’s contract to keep him around for the 2021 season, though the linebacker has yet to play because of a knee injury.

Outside of an improved pass rush led by defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, who is technically still a backup, the Vikings’ return on investment elsewhere on defense has not materialized.

While Minnesota held Cleveland to one touchdown, the Browns’ method of keep-away via its rushing attack allowed them to dominate time of possession (35:32) and control the game. If the Vikings had been able to limit opposing rushers, the Browns probably wouldn’t have been able to run 78 plays.

The 21 runs Nick Chubb took for 100 yards and Kareem Hunt’s 14 carries for 69 yards were problematic but expected. The six plays Cleveland ran inside the Vikings’ 3-yard line that led to Hunt’s one-yard touchdown, which was aided by a fourth-down defensive holding call, tested the fortitude of this defense.

But it was Hunt’s 33-yard sprint on a third-and-20 draw play in the first half's two-minute drill where the Vikings’ vulnerabilities were most apparent.

“I’m disgusted about that,” Zimmer said.

As cornerback Patrick Peterson added, “We just didn’t have enough guys to rally to make that tackle before the first-down marker. That’s just one of those plays I was talking about that happened in the game to where we played well enough, but it’s just that one play that kind of made a difference in the game.”

Four games in, the Vikings’ defense is struggling in many of the same places it did at this time last year.

The 4.8 yards per rush Minnesota has allowed through four games (4.08 yards per rush allowed Weeks 1 to 4 in 2020) is the third-worst mark in the NFL. Though the numbers don’t look all that different from a year ago, that’s a problem considering how many resources this team spent to fix it.

While the number of rushing first downs has dropped from 37 to 28 in the first four games and the successful play rate on defensive rushes EPA (expected points added) is better (52.8%), the Vikings are allowing a higher rate of runs to convert on third down (up from 46.2% to 54.2%) and more yards before contact.

The addition of Pierce, who opted out of the 2020 season, and Tomlinson was supposed to alleviate these issues in the run game, but they’re still there. Zimmer did not have an update on Pierce’s status on Monday after the nose tackle had an MRI on an elbow injury he aggravated in Sunday's game, though he did announce he expects Barr to make his season debut next against the visiting Detroit Lions.

“Anthony Barr has been in the system for a long, long time, and there’s certain things we can do with him that we haven’t been able to do in these first four ballgames,” Zimmer said.

That addition should help considering Nick Vigil’s struggles against the run (ranked 44th of 48 linebackers with a minimum of 50% of snaps played), but it’s only one part of the overall issue for a defense that has yet to fulfill its promise of being better than it was during a rock-bottom 2020.

“I just keep seeing with my eyes the offense, how good they can be. And the defense, how much they’ve improved, and they’re playing together,” Zimmer said. “We were giving up 30-some points a game the first week or two. Now, last week it was 17. This week it’s 14. So I see the progress that we’re making. It might not show up in the wins and losses, but if we stick to the grindstone, it will.”