It didn't take but one week for the Vikings to realize their season of defensive transition would be difficult in 2020.
Minnesota gave up a whopping 522 yards of total offense to the rival Green Bay Packers in the season opener, a 43-34 loss that quickly exposed the newfound weakness of the Vikings' turned-over secondary. What was a small sample size ended up proving to be a precursor of a slog of a season in which the Vikings finished 27th in yards allowed per game and 29th in points allowed per game.
Mike Zimmer's team dealt with plenty of losses and necessary on-the-fly adjustments that made for a difficult campaign, and when he took a moment to scan his roster for opportunities to improve late in the season, he ended up "down in the dumps," he recalled Wednesday.
"I'm not used to that level of performance from one of our groups," Zimmer said. "Honestly, we've had some of the best meetings that I've had in eight years probably. I mean we're dissecting every little thing we do, going through everything with a fine-toothed comb. I've been really impressed with the coaches that are in there. You know, the offenses have changed so much in the last four, five years. It's time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt. I'm actually really excited. I can't wait to get the players back on the field and get them going."
Following the offseason departures of Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes, Zimmer turned to Mike Hughes to start at one corner and selected from a young pair of corners in Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney for the other opening. Less than two months later the oft-injured Hughes was again on injured reserve, and fellow defensive back Holton Hill wasn't able to stay healthy enough to be available, forcing Zimmer to turn to Gladney and Dantzler full-time.
That, in itself, would have been a challenge in today's pass-friendly NFL. But for the Vikings, it only further compounded what was already expected to be a year of transition with anticipated growing pains. Minnesota had said goodbye to longtime defensive stalwarts Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph in the offseason, and thought it scored a great replacement in Yannick Ngakoue, but he fell short of his own expectations before the Vikings shipped him to Baltimore. Danielle Hunter also missed the entire season due to injury, essentially decimating what was once a strength in Minnesota.
Fast forward to March, and Zimmer is feeling much better about his team. Minnesota welcomed Alexander back to the Twin Cities after his one-year stint in Cincinnati, signed veteran corner Patrick Peterson -- an addition Zimmer called "probably a really lucky break" -- picked up defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and linebacker Nick Vigil, and bolstered the edge rush by inking defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
With Anthony Harris off to Philadelphia, general Rick Spielman made a potentially savvy signing when the Vikings convinced safety Xavier Woods to move north, getting younger at the position and saving Minnesota cap space following a disappointing franchise tag season from Harris amid the widespread failures. Woods excites Zimmer because he believes he has untapped potential after spending his first four seasons in Dallas.
"I think he's got another level to go to, and I think he has a chip on his shoulder as well," Zimmer said, via Will Ragatz of Sports Illustrated's Vikings site. "I like that about guys."
In all, the Vikings used the offseason to fill a variety of holes with the hopes they aren't caught with a nearly barren cupboard -- Zimmer actually used the term "barren" Wednesday when describing his team's state near the end of 2020 -- in 2021.
"When we looked at the defense after the season, evaluated it, it was pretty barren in there," Zimmer said. "So we had to address that. Honestly, at the end of the season, I was pretty down in the dumps when I kept looking at the depth chart and knowing what kind of salary cap space we had. Like I said, Rob (Brzezinski) and Rick (Spielman) have done an unbelievable job doing that, and they've got me rejuvenated with the guys they've brought in."
That was the prevailing theme Wednesday: Zimmer seems more juiced up to attack a new season than he has in years. A taste of mediocrity will do that to a coach, especially when the struggles come in his area of expertise. Now it's up to Zimmer and his retooled roster to ensure it doesn't happen again.