EAGAN, Minn. -- An exasperated Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer hit the reset button on his defense four weeks into the 2018 season and turned things around.
Minnesota isn't at the point of hitting the panic button after one week of the 2020 season, but its performance Sunday against the Green Bay Packers (522 yards -- the worst since that Rams game -- and 43 points allowed) calls for a necessary introspection on how to fix things.
The Vikings will be without Pro Bowl defensive end Danielle Hunter (neck) for at least their next two games against the Indianapolis Colts (1 p.m. ET Sunday, FOX) and the Tennessee Titans. The young crop of corners have shown they need time to develop, and the unit is already dealing with injuries. Rookie Cameron Dantzler, who played the most of any cornerback in Week 1, missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a rib injury.
The Vikings' seven pressures on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' 44 dropbacks exposed the back end of the defense as he threw four touchdowns. And it highlighted how important Hunter is to the defense.
Since the start of 2019, the Vikings have a 28% pressure rate and 7.8 sack per dropback percentage on 536 dropbacks with Hunter on the field. Without him, they have a 20% pressure rate and 3.6% dropback percentage on 166 dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information. So how do they handle his prolonged absence?
The answer should be newly acquired defensive end Yannick Ngakoue.
Ngakoue, who was acquired in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars just before the season, had an underwhelming debut against the Packers with just one pressure. But that shouldn't be a surprise given he had to learn a new role in a different scheme in nine days.
"I don't think he was rusty, I just think it's more of all the new things in your head as far as how he has to play in our defense," Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "But when he got a chance to go forward and go rush the passer, you saw some glimpses of his quickness and explosiveness."
The Colts were thrilled to get Ngakoue out of the AFC South. In eight career games vs. Indianapolis, Ngakoue had 37 pressures, 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles, both of which happened in 2019.
Without Hunter, the job of getting to the quarterback falls heavily on Ngakoue, but he's not feeling any extra pressure.
"We're two different types of players. We bring two different types of style to the game," Ngakoue said of Hunter. "At the end of the day, if I was down, he should be able to hold it down as well for the defensive line, vice versa.
"It shouldn't matter about this guy (filling) a role, anything like that. When I came here it was about a tandem. It wasn't about me filling the shoes of nobody. Right now I just need to do a great job of leading these guys and then I'm pretty sure when Danielle comes back we'll both lead these guys together."
Zimmer likes to get pressure with his four-down linemen. If Hunter is not on the field, Zimmer might be more inclined to supplement his pass rush with blitzes. That's what happened in Week 1 when linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks were utilized more frequently as extra rushers, leading the Vikings to the 11th-highest blitz rate (31.8%), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Since the start of 2017, the Vikings generate pressure on 25.3% of dropbacks using a standard four-man rush (16th in the NFL). That figure jumped to 40.9% when blitzing, just above the league-average of 39%, which ranks 12th in the NFL.
That's no surprise to opponents around the league.
"(Hunter is) definitely a big loss and coach Zimmer has done a great job of getting pressure with four, but he's also very well known for exotic blitz schemes so we know that he's able to dial those things up," Colts coach Frank Reich said. "We know he has a lot of those things in his arsenal and he's really made a reputation for himself as the guy with the double-A gap package and what he does from that with pressures ... Even though he likes a four-man rush, he can get a five- and six-man rush real quick and has all those weapons in his arsenal."
Unfortunately for Minnesota, Colts quarterback Philip Rivers averaged 2.27 seconds per release in Week 1 and has one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. How can the Vikings stop history from repeating itself?
"We've got to be tighter in coverage to make him pull the ball down to give the rush a chance to get there," Patterson said. "That's why pass rush and coverage work hand in hand. They work together. In order for the rush to get there when a guy's getting the ball out quick, we've got to make him hold the ball a little bit longer."