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How Mike Zimmer Has Transformed the Minnesota Vikings Defense

Darren PageFeatured ColumnistNovember 12, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - NOVEMBER 2: Head coach Mike Zimmer of the Minnesota Vikings looks on during the third quarter of the game against the Washington Redskins on November 2, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Redskins 29-26. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In what seemed an unlikely plot twist before the season began, the Minnesota Vikings defense is the clear catalyst to the team’s success. Mike Zimmer is the most obvious reason for the turnaround.

The unit has carried the team in recent weeks, a complete transformation from the 2013 Vikings defense. That unit was a canoe in a boat race.

Zimmer came into the job with a track record as a stellar defensive coach from his days in Cincinnati. Minnesota already had a number of talented defensive players for him to work with, quickening the rebuilding process.

The implementation of a new defensive scheme was the first step. In his introductory press conference, Zimmer gave a little glimpse into his defensive philosophy, going beyond simple cliches:

I want to fit our scheme to the players to the best of their abilities. Like I said before, it really does not matter if it is a three-four or a four-three, and as far as my philosophy I want to stop the run and I want to hit the quarterback. However that is, if we got to blitz I think we have a great blitz package, but I want to be fundamentally sound in what we do.

Sorting through some of the general comments, the first and final points stand out as most relevant and have shown up in the way Zimmer has crafted his defense.

Zimmer is putting talented players in positions to succeed, utilizing their athletic skills instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. This has kept some of the defense’s lower-end starters from getting exposed on a regular basis while giving the premier talent a chance to shine.

The second point regarding the usage of blitzes stands out as well. Minnesota does an effective job mixing aggressive defensive calls with conservative ones, keeping offenses guessing but also giving the defenders on the field the best chance for success.

Oct 26, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) talks with head coach Mike Zimmer against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the second half at Raymond James Stadium. Minnesota Vikings defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 19-13.
USA TODAY Sports

Schematically, Zimmer’s defense has many nuances to it, especially in pass coverage. His implementation of mixed-coverage calls along with increased usage in man coverage is producing results just over halfway through the 2014 season.

Pro Football Focus premium statistics (subscription required) gave the No. 31 grade in pass coverage in 2013. That ranking is up to No. 14. The 2013 Vikings were No. 17 in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate. They have skyrocketed to the league’s most prolific pass rush in 2014.

The final statistical indicator that documents the sharp improvement is third-down-conversion percentage, per TeamRankings.com. In 2013, Minnesota slipped all the way to No. 30, stumbling on 44 percent of third-down plays. After a slow start to the 2014 season, the defense climbed to No. 10, only allowing first downs on 38 percent of third-down plays.

Numerous schematic makeovers have the Vikings defense performing at such a high level only a year removed from mediocrity.

Connectivity between the rush and coverage is a hallmark of Zimmer’s defense. After early-down successes, the entire defensive call is crafted to put offenses in a bind and shut down passing plays, getting the defense off the field on crucial downs.

The first example of how the rush and the coverage are connected so well in Zimmer’s defense comes from a 3rd-and-8 play against Washington.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

After showing the patented double A-gap pressure pre-snap, the Vikings drop two players in a modified zone-blitz-type play.

Anthony Barr is the straw that stirs the drink in the way Zimmer organizes plays like this. Because of his uncommon athletic skills, he has the range to cover lots of ground if he drops but also presents a rushing threat that offenses must respect. So even though he’s often a long way from where he needs to get to when dropping, he’s capable of doing it.

When Barr and Brian Robison drop into coverage, they don’t simply fall straight back and start looking around like a typical zone blitz. This play is more nuanced than that, and the way it worked on this occasion is exactly the way defensive coaches envision calls working when they scheme plays in their film dungeons.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

The beauty is in the lack of options the play call gives the offense. One option the offense has is to attack over the top, subjecting its quarterback to the vitriol of the pass rush unless his offensive line comes to the rescue against a well-schemed blitz. That’s what Washington has called here.

Washington could also audible, changing a route or the entire play to something that gets the ball out more quickly. The Vikings are prepared either way.

If the Washington Redskins throw a slant to the near-side receiver, the one with off coverage from the cornerback, Barr is sinking underneath it with six points on his mind. If they throw a quick-hitter to the right, the Vikings have three defenders to two blockers, and safety Robert Blanton is prepared to drive down the field and supplement the numerical advantage.

When Washington attacks down the field, Minnesota has bracketed the near-side receiver with Barr and Xavier Rhodes. Robison has safety help the whole way, because the other two cornerbacks are strictly in man coverage, taught to trail the receivers to the bathrooms if need be.

After the routes developed, the final wrinkle unfolds.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Rhodes passes off the in-breaking route to Barr, who’s in better position to track it across the field. Rhodes then locates the receiver coming from the other direction, immediately moving in his direction. That’s the receiver Robison has passed off to the next layer of coverage, with Blanton ready to pick him up.

This coverage is an example of the pattern-matching principles used in moderation by the Vikings. After taking some lumps learning the techniques of this matchup-zone-type coverage early in the season, it has become a real aid in connecting the rush to the coverage.

All of this happens while the rush closes on Griffin. The end is always in sight, so the Vikings are not trying to cover Washington receivers for an infinite amount of time, just long enough to keep defenders in position to make a play on throws the QB can make in the first few seconds. If the QB holds it any longer than that, the burden falls on the rush to get home.

The aggression of the alignment is the final puzzle piece. Even though the Vikings only bring five rushers, not exactly the most exotic or heroic of blitzes, the deception wreaks havoc on offensive lines.

Let’s go back to the pre-snap look from the end zone and analyze the way Washington parses out pass-blocking responsibilities.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Because the Vikings have one more rusher shown than Washington has blockers, a free rusher must be left. Offensive lines always want to leave the rusher with the longest path to the quarterback. That’s Harrison Smith on this play.

The offensive line then assigns duties in picking up the blitz. In a similar defensive look the week before, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers assigned the center to Chad Greenway and the back to Barr. That ended in a sack for the rookie linebacker, so the Redskins were sure not to make that same mistake. Unfortunately for them, it’s Greenway who blitzes this time.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

After Barr backs out, the Redskins slide their protection to the next rusher over. That in-play adjustment gets all the rushers accounted for, but it leaves Washington in a bit of a scramble drill. Sliding the rush is delayed by the aggressive pre-snap look, giving the Vikings an even bigger advantage over a typical blitz.

As the right side of the offensive line adjusts, the right guard tries to scramble and help to the inside, but the delay keeps him off Greenway. With only the back to beat, Greenway slides free for a big sack to get the Vikings defense off the field.

The connection between the rush and the coverage doesn’t exist solely for blitz purposes either. Let’s look at another third-down play, this time 3rd-and-7 for Tampa Bay.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Notice the way this play begins: just like the previous one. Zimmer stays consistent in the way he aligns his players, especially on third downs. That consistency gives the players assuredness in their assignments and keeps them playing fast, something all good defenses enable their players to do.

But this is not a blitz, just a four-man rush. Once again, the single receiver gets bracketed from underneath to prevent the slant pattern on third down. Both linebackers will sink at the snap and match up with each of the eligible receivers in the backfield. Captain Munnerlyn and Rhodes are in man coverage on the far side and have help from the deep safety.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

As Mike Glennon scans the field, he sees nothing but covered receivers. Why is this?

The bracketed receiver has an impossible task in the first place. Aggressiveness in positioning is steering the QB from his receivers on the far side as well. Instead of sinking to keep from getting beat over the top like defenses tend to do on third downs, Zimmer wants his cornerbacks to take aggressive positions.

On this play, both Munnerlyn and Rhodes trail their receivers, staying underneath to take away quick-hitting throws. They have trust in the deep safety, Blanton, to patrol that half of the field over the top.

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

While the four-man rush tails Glennon, still a potent proposition, the blanketing of downfield receivers forces a checkdown short of the sticks. Barr is literally making a living chasing down plays like this. Zimmer gets exactly what he wants. The Bucs get their four yards, and the Vikings get their offense back on the field.

Both of these plays paint the picture of Zimmer’s defensive philosophy, especially in defending the pass, which can be summed up in four succinct points.

  1. All three levels of the defense will be fast.
  2. The scheme will be consistent and simple enough to allow those players to play fast.
  3. Aggressive alignments will challenge offenses to beat fast players.
  4. Deception will slow down the thought process of the offense, making it play slower.

A Zimmer-coached defense puts these four features on display every single week. Speed is the name of the game. It took the Vikings defense a few weeks to internalize the techniques and assignments of the blitz patterns and coverage calls. Once that happened, the mistakes were cut down, and the defense began playing much faster.

The sharp schematics of Zimmer’s defense and the appropriate usage of the talent at Minnesota’s disposal has quickly turned an embarrassing unit into a formidable one. Zimmer is just getting started too.

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