Vikings Have Improved Defense, But Still Have Work To Do


Dec 15, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (41) returns an interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Watching the Vikings’ defense in 2013 was like taking a plunge into the very depths of Carcosa, through the stick sculptures and mummies and into the round room where the Yellow King himself dwells.

And now Rick Spielman wants to be Rust Cohle.

Slaying this monster won’t be easy. But Spielman is off to a good start, attacking the problem aggressively via free agency.

It began with the re-signing of Everson Griffen, a potential stud pass rusher. The Vikings then added Linval Joseph, a massive, powerful nose tackle.

With the defensive line rebuilt, Spielman turned his attention to the secondary. He took care of the slot corner issue by inking Captain Munnerlyn, then added cornerback depth by signing Derek Cox.

And the Vikings may not be done. Henry Melton visited Minnesota Thursday night before heading to Seattle, and even if the Vikings don’t sign Melton, their interest in him indicates that they still want to add pieces.

Truth be told, this is way more action than I thought we’d see in free agency.

I assumed like most people that Spielman would sit back and wait for some second-tier pieces to fall in his lap. I figured we’d have to content ourselves with some minor signings, and gear up for the big action to happen in the draft.

But I was wrong. Spielman was willing to spend.

The Griffen signing maybe should have been an indication that things would be more interesting around Minnesota than we first believed. The Vikes moved quickly to lock up Griffen, a potential rising star.

Mike Zimmer turned Michael Johnson into a big-time player in Cincinnati, and he can do the same for Griffen, who possesses a skill set similar to Johnson’s.

Spending good money on one of your own free agents is one thing, but being aggressive in chasing other teams’ free agents is quite another. It turns out Rick Spielman was willing to pursue both avenues.

The two biggest signings were Linval Joseph and Captain Munnerlyn. The massive Joseph gives the Vikes a physical presence at nose tackle they haven’t had since Pat Williams. Munnerlyn gives them a gritty, sure-tackling cornerback in the mold of Antoine Winfield.

But this wasn’t just about finding players who remind fans of guys they used to love, it was about plugging massive gaping holes on the roster.

Of all the problem spots on last year’s defense, nose tackle and slot corner were arguably the two most infuriating. The platoon of Letroy Guion and Fred Evans just did not get it done at the nose, and the various players who cycled through the slot corner position just did not perform.

You can blame Rick Spielman and Leslie Frazier for those issues.

Frazier’s philosophy of plugging smaller, quicker guys into the nose left the Vikings with a whole roster full of undersized defensive tackles, none of them really capable of anchoring a line.

Mike Zimmer looked at the personnel and said, “Rick Spielman, you don’t have one single real honest-to-goodness nose tackle on this roster. You better get me a nose tackle.”

Spielman obliged, plucking the young, powerful Linval Joseph from the Giants. Comparing Joseph to Pat Williams might be premature, but he will certainly provide more physicality and space-eating presence than Guion, who was cut to recover $4 million in cap space.

Having looked over the secondary talent, Mike Zimmer once again had a request for Spielman.

“Rick,” said Zim. “You better get me a slot corner.”

Spielman may have grinned sheepishly at this point, knowing it was all his fault the Vikings went into 2013 with no one capable of replacing Antoine Winfield.

They tried Josh Robinson, who apparently was drafted specifically to replace Winfield, but Robinson was brutal. No one the Vikings tried inside really got it done.

In today’s NFL, when you’re in nickel so much, and teams try so hard to exploit the middle of the field with quick receivers, slot corner is a vital position. Spielman acknowledged this by spending to bring in Captain Munnerlyn from Carolina.

Munnerlyn will now fill the Winfield role, in more ways than one. Like Winfield, he will line up outside in the base defense and kick inside when Zimmer goes nickel. Like Winfield, he will be key to the run defense as well as the pass defense. Like Winfield, he will give the defense an infusion of attitude and leadership.

Munnerlyn will also blitz, which Winfield did occasionally with the Vikings, sometimes to devastating effect (just ask Michael Vick about that).

In those two moves, Joseph and Munnerlyn, the Vikings wiped away two of their biggest issues. And there is still more wiping to be done.

Questions remain, even after several days of surprisingly brisk action:

Who will play linebacker? Are the Vikings content with Jasper Brinkley or Audie Cole at Mike? Will Desmond Bishop be brought back to compete with Gerald Hodges at Will?

Who plays outside corner when Munnerlyn moves to the slot? Is Derek Cox a viable candidate coming off a terrible year in San Diego? Does a guy like Shaun Prater have a chance?

Is Jamarca Sanford good enough for Mike Zimmer at safety alongside Harrison Smith?

And perhaps the most intriguing question of all: is Sharrif Floyd Zimmer’s guy at undertackle?

The question must be asked in light of Henry Melton’s visit. Yes, perhaps Melton is just being looked at as a rotational player. But Melton’s skills are such that using him on a rotational basis would be a massive waste. He doesn’t really look the part of a nickel rusher, he’s a guy who can stop the run, and really should be used as an every-down player.

The other questions will likely be addressed via the draft. Linebacker is a position the Vikings figure to target in the first round, or perhaps cornerback.

The grinding isn’t over for Rick Spielman and his staff. But you have to like what they’ve done so far. The Vikings’ roster looks much more promising today than it did three days ago.

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