Scoggins: Hunter and Smith hold key to Vikings defense as ‘security blanket’

Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith stood to the side of the field, away from the rest of the defensive line and linebackers as the first practice of training camp began. They were working together on their passing rushing moves.

These two have been inseparable on the field since spring training. See one, see the other. Two new besties who hold the key to the Vikings’ quest to resurrect its defense from a state of disrepair.

Want a prediction on how the defense will perform under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and his 3-4 scheme? Tell me how many games Hunter and Smith will play.

The more plays available, the better the overall defense will be. It’s a sliding scale.

Their value as pass throwers can’t be overstated because individually each guy can ruin an opposing offense’s game plan and when you put them together they give the Vikings one of the fiercest tandems in the NFL – when they are healthy.

This is the crux of the conversation. No talent or anything unless they can avoid the injury bug that has plagued their careers in recent seasons.

“We’re going to be us,” Hunter said. “We’re not going to try to be someone else. We like the way people sleep on us.”

No one will sleep on D&Z if they are lucky and avoid serious injury.

Hunter has established himself as one of the best passing throwers and sack artists in the league. He became the youngest player in NFL history to reach 50 career sacks (since 1982, when sacks became an official stat). His sack count would be even more impressive if injuries hadn’t limited him to just seven games over the past two seasons. It’s no coincidence that the Vikings’ defense turned into a roadkill in his absence.

Smith posted 26 combined sacks in the 2019-20 seasons for the Packers and then missed nearly all of last season with a back injury. The Vikings gave him a contract this winter that could be worth up to $47 million.

Both players are healthy again and the benefit of playing together and forcing opponents to consider both is immeasurable for the entire defense.

“With those two guys on the edge,” defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said, “you can’t ignore them both. It frees a lot of us on the inside.”

A stifling pass rush is everything in modern football. This can mitigate weaknesses elsewhere in the defense while disrupting attack timing and accuracy.

All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks called Hunter and Smith “safety cover for us.”

Not only is Hunter healthy and motivated to reestablish himself as the dominant force, but he also has a new position in the 3-4 scheme. The roster now lists him as an outside linebacker, and no longer a defensive end.

He doesn’t see much difference.

“As long as I’m in the same neighborhood — edge — I’m okay with that,” he said. “I am an edge.”

The plan is to use his and Smith’s talent and athleticism creatively. They won’t just stay in a set position. They will play outside, inside and change sides of the line. During Wednesday’s practice, Hunter alternated between standing on the line and putting his hand on the ground before the snap.

He recalled that he started his career as a standing pass thrower.

“That’s how I got my first bag,” he said. “Kansas City Chiefs. I remember that.”

The scheme is new and its role will evolve and allow it to be more versatile. No problem, he said.

“I’m in 8th grade,” he said. “I pretty much did everything. It’s just a matter of sharpening things up.”

His new sidekick is always there, standing next to him, to help this process. Smith and Hunter seem to enjoy teaching each other new passing moves.

Their presence as a tag team duo makes the Vikings defense exponentially better than what we’ve seen without Hunter. That is to say the obvious. Take that “safety blanket” off and everything looks different.

Helen L. Cuellar