Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings expect big things from defense

MANKATO, Minn. — Like a protective father, Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer bristled when presented with the notion that his vaunted defense “tapered off” a year ago.

However, something not so good did happen last December. With the playoffs still within reach, the Vikings gave up a combined 72 points in back-to-back losses to the Indianapolis Colts at home and the Green Bay Packers on the road in Weeks 15 and 16.

“We had two bad games,” Zimmer snapped. “I don’t know about ‘tapered off.’ We finished (sixth) in the league in points (allowed) and every other statistical thing. We (allowed) 16 points against Detroit (in both games). They kicked the field goal to tie it (in the first game) and scored a touchdown in overtime to make it (22), I believe.”

Before hosting the Colts on Dec. 18, the Vikings ranked third in scoring defense and had not allowed more than 26 points in a game. The defense looked flat, confused and completely worn out as Andrew Luck posted a 125.6 passer rating in Indianapolis’ 34-6 win. A week later, Aaron Rodgers posted a 136.6 passer rating while completing the Vikings’ 3-8 season-ending slide with a 38-25 Green Bay win on Christmas Eve.

This year, Zimmer, general manager Rick Spielman and the Vikings are banking even more on their defense. Literally.

In the first 11 days of camp, the Vikings extended the contracts of three key defenders — right end Everson Griffen, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and, on Saturday, nose tackle Linval Joseph.

As players reported to camp at Mankato State University on July 26, Griffen inked a four-year, $58 million extension. Four days later, Rhodes was given a five-year, $70 extension, putting him under contract for a total of $78 million over the next six years.

Then, before the team’s annual fan appreciation night practice in front of about 10,000 fans at Blakeslee Stadium, the Vikings announced that the 28-year-old Joseph had been extended as well. Like Griffen, Joseph still had two more years on his current deal before the Vikings gave him four more years worth up to $50 million with $31.5 million guaranteed.

“I feel I outplayed my last contract,” said Joseph, who was the team’s prized free agent acquisition from the New York Giants back when Zimmer arrived in 2014. “And I thank the Vikings for taking care of that.”

Rhodes is the team’s shutdown corner. Everyone knew he would land a mega-deal with only a year left on his contract. But the deals for Griffen and Joseph were more of a surprise even though they are elite players at their positions.

The Vikings had $11.7 million in salary-cap space before signing Joseph. With even more deals coming down the pike — including a long-term decision at quarterback between Sam Bradford and Teddy Bridgewater — Spielman said he felt the time was right to lock up more of the team’s elite young defenders. (The team also gave safety Harrison Smith a five-year deal last summer).

“As we always have, we have not only cap-planned for this year but for future years,” Spielman said. “I know we have some significant contracts and significant young players coming up, so to get, I wouldn’t say ahead of the curve, but to get some of this out of the way now, it is going to give a lot more flexibility as we go forward into next year and future years because I do think we have some very talented young players and we want to keep this core group of young players together as long as we can.”

Joseph clearly is one of those players. When healthy, he is capable of playing at an All-Pro level.

“He’s the best nose tackle I’ve ever been around,” Zimmer said.

So, yes, the Vikings did slide a bit defensively at the end of last season. But they were wise to extend these three defenders because if the offense can improve just a little, this defense will be fresher and could dominate.

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