There's no quick fix for worst defense Vikings' Mike Zimmer has ever had

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was vexed with his defense's embarrassing performance on Christmas Day. It wasn't just the 52 points allowed to the New Orleans Saints that made him call this the worst defense he has ever had.

Youth was no longer a legitimate excuse for players missing tackles, failing to cover receivers, not aligning the proper run fit or not generating a shred of a pass rush.

"If you look at the playoff game last year [against the Saints] and you look at the guys who were playing in that game and the guys who were playing [Friday], it's completely, 100 percent different."

Among those missing from a defense that has given up the fifth-most points in franchise history (440) through 15 games were defensive end Danielle Hunter (neck) and defensive tackle Michael Pierce (opt-out), who have not played all season, and linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, who were lost to injury.

"If you go back, and honest, I'm not trying to make excuses, it was embarrassing [Friday]," Zimmer said. "We're missing four defensive linemen, we're missing a safety, we're missing three corners, we're missing six linebackers, I believe, from where we started. We're just a little undermanned. That's still no excuse. These guys put on an NFL jersey, they've got to play."

If those players return next season, the defense will undoubtedly be in better shape. But to believe the fix is as simple as bringing back a couple of key players and expecting the Vikings to return to their glory days is imprudent.

The 2020 season was never about retooling the defense after it lost so many key contributors at multiple positions last offseason. This was a rebuild disguised as a remodeling, not a complete teardown, which would have been a more honest assessment.

In the months leading up to the season, the Vikings made several decisions to suggest they were all-in for 2020. Yet the corresponding moves, including drafting 15 players and expecting many to contribute right away after letting nine players from the 2019 defense walk in free agency, didn't add up.

As veteran safety Harrison Smith wisely pointed out, usually there's one or two players considered the "new guy" who have to acclimate to new roles. This year, it seemed as though everyone was young on this defense, especially in the secondary.

If the Vikings' cornerback group was the only position affected by turnover, the chronicle of retooling the pass defense would have been defined by similar ups and downs, as rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler found their footing. But they didn't get any help from a defensive line that generated pressure on just 23.3% of dropbacks (30th in the NFL) and had just 22 sacks. Opposing quarterbacks had time to throw, making it tough on the back end of the defense.

Rebuilding efforts take time, and teams are very rarely successful when one side of the ball has been gutted. Minnesota likely is still a year or two away from where it needs to be defensively to play the style of Zimmer's liking with a conservative, run-heavy approach backed by a defense that can pull off stops in critical moments.

Hunter is coming off neck surgery. Barr's season lasted two weeks after he tore his pectoral muscle in Indianapolis. Cornerback Mike Hughes' neck injury derailed his third season, and it would be silly to think Minnesota would pick up his fifth-year option in a couple of months. Safety Anthony Harris, who is on the franchise tag, hasn't given the Vikings a strong enough reason to consider a long-term extension.

It's too early to tell whether the injured players will return to their previous form. There's also the issue of finances and some tough decisions the Vikings will have to make in the offseason.

Before his neck injury, Hunter outplayed his contract. It's unlikely he has the leverage to garner a lucrative extension to make him one of the game's highest paid pass-rushers, but who's to say he'll want to remain in Minnesota or demand a trade?

And if the Vikings decide they like Eric Wilson as their No. 2 linebacker, how might the trade market look for Barr coming off injury? Since Minnesota can't afford to pay three linebackers, and Barr has a $15.5 million cap hit in 2021, a restructure seems inevitable if Barr is to stay with the Vikings next season.

Minnesota is in line for the 13th pick in the NFL draft. Defensive line, notably a defensive tackle, is a major need. If Pierce, who signed a three-year deal in March, returns from his opt-out season, drafting a 3-technique to replace Jaleel Johnson, who generated six total pressures, should be the top priority.

Defense can and should be the focus on the first two nights of the draft. Minnesota needs a force opposite Hunter (assuming he comes back) at defensive end. That's why the Vikings traded for Yannick Ngakoue earlier this season as a complementary piece. Though that experiment failed and they traded him to the Baltimore Ravens, the Vikings have a chance to get it right in the draft or free agency. Cornerback and safety also are necessary additions.