'We've got a ton - a ton - of work to do,' says Vikings head coach
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Coach Mike Zimmer left no question as to what the next step is for a Minnesota Vikings team on the rise.
Two days after his team's 10-9 wild-card playoff loss to Seattle, Zimmer fired offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and indicated that nothing is off the table when it comes to improving the weakest part of the team.
Zimmer called the line's play "sporadic," adding, "We've got to do better there."
When asked why he wasn't renewing Davidson's contract after Davidson's fifth year with the team, Zimmer typically blunt, saying: "I didn't want to."
When Zimmer arrived in 2014, he inherited the league's worst scoring defense (30.0 points allowed per game). Immediately, he and general manager Rick Spielman set the defensive line as their No. 1 priority. Aging stars Kevin Williams and Jared Allen were allowed to walk; Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd were promoted to starters and Linval Joseph was the team's prized free agent signing.
Today, the defensive line is a youthful strength that got even younger and stronger with rookie third-round draft pick Danielle Hunter notching six sacks in a backup role.
Overall, the defense is in a solid place, having made a remarkable leap to No. 5 in scoring defense (18.9) and holding Seattle to just 10 points on Sunday.
Zimmer, the defensive strategist, is proud of the team's rebirth from 5-10-1 under Leslie Frazier in 2013 to an 11-5 mark that was good enough to end Green Bay's four-year run of NFC North titles.
But Zimmer is far from satisfied.
"We've got a ton - a ton - of work to do," he said Tuesday. "I've been looking at a lot of different things already. It'll be a big, important offseason for us as far as moving forward to where we want to get to."
Clearly, the next step is on offense.
Adrian Peterson won the rushing title and first-team All-Pro honors while scoring 11 touchdowns, but the passing attack ranked 31st as promising second-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater averaged only 201.9 yards passing per game.
The team is justifiably satisfied with Bridgewater's progress. But Zimmer knows the 23-year-old quarterback needs better protection. According to Pro Football Focus, Bridgewater was under pressure on a league-high 46.9 percent of his drops.
The offensive line could look entirely different next season.
Left tackle Matt Kalil and rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings ranked among the bottom 20 tackles in the league in pressures allowed, according to Pro Football Focus.
Brandon Fusco had an off year in his switch from right guard to left guard. Right guard Mike Harris is an unrestricted free agent.
Center Joe Berger, normally an interior backup, started every game and was the team's best lineman. But he will be 34 soon and probably won't start next year.
Meanwhile, center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt -- two starters who missed the entire season -- aren't guaranteed to make the team because they are in their 30s and coming back from major injuries.
"I think we need to compete at (offensive line)," Zimmer said. "I think guys need to come in and compete, whether it's Sullivan or Loadholt or Kalil, or whoever it is."
The Vikings also will be looking to upgrade at receiver again after things didn't work out for Mike Wallace in this offense. After career lows in catches (39), yards (473) and touchdowns (2), Wallace won't be brought back at his current salary cap figure of $11 million and is unlikely to want to return.
Bridgewater and Peterson -- even with a cap number of $11 million for the latter -- are expected to be teamed together again.
Peterson has vowed to take ball security more seriously and make it his top offseason priority after his fourth-quarter fumble handed Seattle the go-ahead field goal.
Zimmer already has talked to his two stars about next season. He told Peterson that he needs to do more than simply talk about eliminating fumbles, and he's told Bridgewater to work on a more consistent over-the-top throwing motion designed to make him more accurate on throws over the middle.
In last year's draft, the Vikings used their top three picks on defensive players.
Minnesota landed a cornerback (Trae Waynes) who is ready to start in 2016, a linebacker (Eric Kendricks) who was an immediate starter and budding star, and a pass rusher (Danielle Hunter) who surprised everyone with how quickly he became a playmaker and potential starter for 2016.
Logic would suggest that a similar emphasis would be placed on offense next season
Zimmer stopped short of that, saying the team still needs to pick the best players available at the time. But he left no doubt about which side of the ball needs the most work.
"Offensively, we've got to get better," he said. "We didn't do enough there."