The two-time Pro Bowler missed the entire 2020 season with a herniated disc in his neck. Mike Zimmer had called the injury a “tweak” throughout training camp before Hunter underwent season-ending surgery. He came back for eight games last season before a torn pectoral muscle shut down his 2021 season.
And after a clean bill of health for the 2022 season, Hunter emerged on Wednesday’s injury report with a neck injury that left him limited in practice this week.
The Vikings officially announced that Hunter, along with four other starters in center Garrett Bradbury (back), cornerback Cam Dantzler (ankle/illness) and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips (back) are all questionable entering Saturday’s matchup with the Indianapolis Colts.
Rotational outside linebacker (illness) Patrick Jones II is also questionable, although head coach Kevin O’Connell said there’s a good chance the handful of players are active on Saturday.
“They all did really well today. Got limited work, some good work across the board,” O’Connell said in a December 15 press conference. “All five of those guys have a good chance to go [on Saturday], but we want to be smart with those guys.”
O’Connell added that Hunter was “dealing with soreness” in his neck, leading to his limited participation in practice. The cause of the soreness is unclear.
Vikings’ Danielle Hunter Hasn’t Looked the Same in 3-4 Defense
It’s come as a surprise that Hunter has put forth the second-best season of his career by Pro Football Focus (PFF) standards.
Hunter has an 83.6 defensive grade, ranking 13th among edge rushers, although he’s gone missing in recent weeks. Hunter has just one sack in the last four games, which has coincided with the defense’s pass rush falling off after a tremendous start to the season.
Za’Darius Smith and Hunter led the league with 79 pressures through Week 10, but since then, the Pro Bowl duo has seemingly gone missing. Smith has dealt with a lingering knee injury, but Hunter hasn’t picked up the slack on his end.
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell came to Hunter’s defense after a sluggish start to the season, chalking it up the star’s transition to a 3-4 defense. His 5.6% pressure rate through four weeks ranked 102nd in the NFL, per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert.
“Every guy that’s ever made that transition, the first month looks about like that,” Donatell said in an October press conference. “That’s pretty normal. There’s a getting used to this role. Very, very normal. But we’re very glad to have him, OK? Let’s make that clear.”
But through 13 games, Hunter still isn’t quite there, according to Donatell.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable every week. It’ll take the whole year. It’s different to every individual. The standing up and playing in our base is a little new to him still,” Donatell said two months later on December 14. “But really, when it comes to third down and the actual rush, we’re pleased with what he’s getting done for us.”
O’Connell is in agreement with Donatell, that Hunter has shown his greatness but needs to develop consistency in the new scheme while the coaching staff finds more ways to complement his ability.
“Danielle has had some real moments for us. But like our whole team and all of our coaches, we’re just looking for consistency across the board. And when we get opportunities to finish those plays… do it,” O’Connell said, per Star Tribune reporter Andrew Krammer. What’s that detail look like? What are we doing to help him schematically? All those things coming to play, but Danielle will continue to affect the quarterback like he’s done his whole career.”
Smith and Hunter have combined for just one sack in the past four games. Smith ranks No. 11 in the NFL in pressure rate at 11.9%. Hunter (7.9%) ranks No. 61, per ESPN.
Vikings Banking on Tighter Coverage to Help Hunter, Smith Get Home
When asked about a lack of pressure on the passer the past month, Donatell responded that he’s comfortable with his four-man pass rush.
His solution, which he came to acknowledge this week is that coverage must be tighter after weeks of playing off, zone coverage.
“The most galling examples have come when the Vikings have played what NFL Next Gen Stats considers off coverage.’ (The closest defender is more than five yards away.),” Seifert wrote. “They have employed it on an NFL-high 261 snaps this season and allowed a league-worst 9.2 yards per pass attempt in those circumstances.”
Playing receivers closer and potentially disrupting the timing of their routes may be enough to force quarterbacks to hold onto the ball longer and buy the pass rush the extra half-second they need.