Defensive issues at center stage as Vikings look toward 2023

Hall of fame safety Paul Krause knows plenty about good defense. When he played for the Vikings from 1968-79, they led the NFL in total defense three times.

With that in mind, Krause sure didn’t like what he saw from Minnesota’s defense in a 31-24 playoff loss to the New York Giants last Sunday.

“It was sickening,” said Krause, who attended the game at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Vikings allowed 431 total yards to a team that ranked No. 18 in the NFL in total offense during the regular season. They watched as Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who has had his share of struggles in his four-year career, completed 24 of 35 passes for 301 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 78 yards.

“He looked like he was All-Pro,’’ said Krause, the NFL’s all-time interceptions leader with 81. “He looked like he should be in the Hall of Fame tomorrow.”

The Vikings went 13-4 and won the NFC North under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. But that was despite a unit that ranked No. 31 in the NFL out of 32 teams in total defense.

The Vikings came up with a number of key defensive plays during the season, one reason they went an incredible 11-0 in one-score games. But they finally lost a one-score game against the Giants in a game in which they had no takeaways and few key plays.

In the lead-up to the playoff opener, first-year defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said it would be “our time to shine as a defense.” Obviously, that didn’t happen, and there is speculation that Donatell, who switched Minnesota’s defense this season from a 4-3 to a 3-4, might not be retained. Krause believes the Vikings had enough talent on defense to be much better than they showed.

“All year, nothing changed,” Krause said. “I hate to say it was the coordinator’s fault, but whose fault it is?”’

Another hall of famer at Sunday’s game was defensive tackle John Randle, who played for Minnesota from 1990-2000. He also saw big issues with the Giants quarterback gaining so many yards on the ground.

“We could have done a better job of keeping Jones contained,” Randle said. “We made him look exceptional, and in the playoffs you can’t let the quarterback run down the field like that and expect to win.”

Randle said he would have liked the Vikings to have had “more production getting to the quarterback” this season. The Vikings had 38 sacks as a team, tied for 21st in the league during the regular season. Danielle Hunter had a team-high 10½ sacks and added one against the Giants. In the regular season, Za’Darius Smith had 10 sacks but just a half sack in the final seven games, when he said he played while hampered by a knee contusion.

“Our team usually has played exceptional defensively but we didn’t see that this year,’’ Randle said. “But I will say that this is Kevin’s first year, and for a first-year coach he did a really good job.”

During the regular season, the Vikings were often able to overcome their shaky defense thanks to ranking seventh in the NFL in total offense. And it’s not as if O’Connell inherited a team that was good on defense. It has been steady decline for the Vikings since they were No. 1 in the league in 2017 in both total defense and scoring defense.

After Minnesota finished No. 27 in total defense in 2020, and No. 30 in 2021, Mike Zimmer, who called the defensive plays, was fired following an eight-year run as head coach.

Minnesota won six regular-season games when outgained by foes but not in their postseason game, where they were outgained 431-332.

“They weren’t clued in at all,” said former Vikings Pro Bowl safety Robert Griffith, who attended the game. “There were a lot of blown coverages. I like (cornerback) Patrick Peterson but he had a terrible game, and they needed him to play well.”

Griffith, who played for the Vikings from 1994-2001, said he was “disappointed” because he expected the Vikings’ defense to “have a lot more juice at home.” He pointed to safety Camryn Bynum being out of position on Saquon Barkley’s 28-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. And he called all the yards Jones ran for “a knock on the coordinator” because there should not have been so many lanes open when playing a zone.

Griffith said he had no opinion on whether Donatell should be retained. He commended O’Connell’s overall job as a rookie coach, saying that “13 wins is 13 wins. But, he added, the Vikings need significant changes on defense.

“There definitely has to be some kind of reconstruction,” he said.

The Vikings have some notable impending free agents in Peterson, defensive linemen Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Bullard, cornerback Duke Shelley and nickel back Chandon Sullivan. Projected now to be $24.43 million over the salary cap by, the Vikings could have limited funds available in free agency.

Safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks have big contracts and will be 34 and 31, respectively, when spring drills get underway. Smith is on the books for a nonguaranteed base salary of $14.7 million and a cap number of $19.13 million. And Kendricks is on the books for a nonguaranteed base salary of $9.15 million and a cap number of $11.43 million.

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