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Vikings fire defensive coordinator Ed Donatell

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The Vikings fired defensive coordinator Ed Donatell Thursday afternoon, opting to look for a new leader for their beleaguered defense.

Minnesota finished 28th in the NFL in points allowed and 31st in yards in 2022, giving up at least 400 yards in seven of its last 10 games of the season. The Vikings allowed 431 yards in their 31-24 loss to the Giants in Sunday’s NFC wild card playoffs in a loss that suggested Donatell’s firing could be imminent.

“Today I informed Ed Donatell that we will be going in a different direction as defensive coordinator in 2023,” coach Kevin O’Connell said in a statement. “Although it was a difficult decision due to the enormous respect I have for Ed as a person and as a coach, I believe it is the right decision for the future of our football team.”

The move came a day after O’Connell’s season-ending press conference, in which the coach said he was still evaluating the Vikings squad and had not reached any decisions on potential changes.

Donatell’s future, however, has looked uncertain since the Vikings’ Dec. 11 loss to the Lions, after which O’Connell called for the defense to be more aggressive. He then said he wasn’t considering changing defensive players “at the moment”, and the Vikings changed some of their coverage schemes in the final weeks of the season, playing more man coverage and moving cornerback Patrick Peterson to the shorter side of the field. field in an effort to thwart easy shots by opposing defenders.

The Lions game was the Vikings’ fifth straight game in which they allowed at least 400 yards. They’ve only done it once in the last four games of the regular season, but that was on December 24 against the Giants, when quarterback Daniel Jones had one of his best days of the season. Then, in the wild card round, Jones became the first NFL player to throw for at least 300 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for at least 70 in a playoff game.

Donatell’s firing could be just the first of big changes for the Vikings’ defense this offseason. Cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan, as well as forward Dalvin Tomlinson, are scheduled to hit free agency in March, and players like safety Harrison Smith, edge rusher Za’Darius Smith and linebacker Eric Kendricks could fall victim to the cap. salary if the Vikings, who need to free up more than $18 million in space by the start of the league year in March, don’t work out restructured contracts with the seniors.

Donatell, 65, had been Vic Fangio’s defensive coordinator for the previous three seasons in Denver, and O’Connell hired Donatell to manage Fangio’s Minnesota scheme. The approach became popular across the league and impressed O’Connell while he was the Rams’ offensive coordinator practicing against Brandon Staley’s similar defenses. O’Connell found the scheme, which aims to eliminate big plays with two deep safeties and prioritizes misleading pass coverage on run-heavy fronts, one of the league’s toughest to resolve. He brought in Donatell to oversee the defensive shift, which would mean new roles for the likes of Danielle Hunter and Harrison Smith after years in Mike Zimmer’s system.

The Vikings, despite using double safety coverage more than almost any team in the NFL, were vulnerable to big plays throughout the season. They gave up 73 plays of 20 yards or more during the regular season, second most in the league behind only Detroit, as coverage miscommunications sent receivers running out into the open. The Vikings also gave up a lot of space in the midzones, with their cornerbacks playing outside the line of scrimmage, and they looked especially vulnerable as their rushing pass struggled to generate consistent pressure late in the season.

“Each team in this league goes through the roster evaluation process to try to fit players into roles that you believe are best for them,” O’Connell said Wednesday. “I feel like some of our players really handled it with ease. With some of our players it was a work in progress, finding their key role and how they can thrive. Ultimately, that’s up to us as coaches and me. as a head football coach, to make sure I look at this a lot and decide what’s the best thing for our team moving forward from a personal standpoint, working alongside [General Manager] kwesi [Adofo-Mensah] and how we deploy our people.”

Donatell did not respond to a message seeking comment. His son Steve, the Vikings’ offensive quality control coach, remained on the coaching staff Thursday night.

Under NFL rules, the Vikings must interview at least one outside minority candidate for a coordinator position.

Former Lions defensive coach Aubrey Pleasant, Seahawks assistant coach Sean Desai and Ravens assistant coach Anthony Weaver interviewed for the Vikings defensive coordinator job before Donatell was hired last year. The Rams also blocked O’Connell’s request to interview defensive backs coach Jonathan Cooley about a job with the Vikings last year. Vikings assistant coach Mike Pettine and outside linebackers coach Greg Manusky were NFL defensive coordinators, and Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones was defensive coordinator at LSU.