EAGAN, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have had eight months to stew about some of their defensive breakdowns last season. Now, at least they have their full defense intact.
When nose tackle Linval Joseph returned to practice this week as a full participant, it marked the first time this year Minnesota had all 11 projected starters on defense available. Following offseason shoulder surgery, Joseph mostly had worked out on a side field during spring drills and the first three weeks of training camp.
Last week, the Vikings got back defensive tackle Shamar Stephen, who missed the first two weeks of training camp with an injury. Stephen played for Minnesota from 2014-2017 before spending last season with Seattle.
“The boys are back in town,” defensive end Stephen Weatherly said of the finally healthy defense.
In 2017, the Vikings ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense before slipping to rankings of No. 4 and 9, respectively, last season. The Vikings got off to a sluggish start last year on defense, got things rolling, then faltered on some key drives in the finale at home against Chicago. They lost 24-10, and failed to make the playoffs with an 8-7-1 record.
Minnesota is looking for redemption this season. The Vikings are optimistic the offense has improved, and defensive players have talked about a renewed focus.
“We’re just going back to our fundamentals,” defensive end Danielle Hunter said. “Anything we want, it’s ahead of us. We’ve just got to work for it.”
Hunter said the Vikings’ defense has what it takes to get back to its 2017 level. So did Weatherly.
“Absolutely, I think we can,” Weatherly said of being ranked No. 1 again. “Because I think we’re good. I don’t think we suck.”
All 11 current starters were with the team in 2017, with nine being regular starters then. Safety Anthony Harris played in all 16 games in 2017, starting three times when since-departed Andrew Sendejo was out. Stephen played in 15 games in 2017, getting one start when since-departed Tom Johnson was out.
Harris took over as a starter midway through last season after Sendejo was injured. Sheldon Richardson started at three-technique defensive tackle last year, but he left as a free agent for Cleveland and was replaced by Stephen.
The 6-foot-4, 329-pound Joseph and 6-5, 309-pound Stephen sat out the first two preseason games this month. Both could play Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It’s good to have some more beef in there, and I felt like that’s what we need is more size in the middle of the defense,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “It takes some of the pressure off some of the ends, and so I think that part is good. They’re still working their way in. Linval’s had a couple good days, and Shamar’s showing some good flashes. So it helps.”
Barring another injury, Minnesota will have all defensive starters available for the Sept. 8 opener at home against Atlanta. The Vikings’ defense needs to get off to a much better start than last season, when it gave up an average of 378 yards in the first five games. The defense finished the year allowing an average of 309.7 yards per game.
“When you look at us last year, we gave up a lot of big plays, especially in the early part of the season,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “We need to focus on those things, focus on the technique and fundamentals.”
The Vikings had five defensive players make the Pro Bowl in 2017, but just three last season. In 2018, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr had return appearances, while Hunter made it for the first time. But defensive end Everson Griffen, who missed five games because of a mental health issue, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and Joseph failed to return the Pro Bowl.
Griffen has said he’s now doing well. Zimmer has praised the recent play of Rhodes. And Joseph said he is “way stronger” after playing through injuries during what he called “the hardest season” of hist nine in the NFL.
“There’s not a lot of guys that can run like (Joseph) and are that big and strong,” Smith said. “There’s not a person built like that. It’s good to have him back.”
Could it all lead to a defensive season that is more like 2017 than 2018?
“If we keep working, we can get anything we want to get,” Hunter said.