The Minnesota Vikings defense has arrived as one of the elite units in the NFL, alongside Denver and Seattle.
It's not just good, or emerging, or a top defense. It's elite. That's a term good sports writers try not to over-use, and limit to the best-of-the-best who have proven themselves over a period of time. I haven't heard them use the term yet with the Vikings defense. And, given that the Vikings' defense really has only one full season - and four games this year- to make it's case, it may seem a little premature to confer elite status upon it.
But it's not.
Mike Zimmer has not only re-built the Vikings defense since the days of Leslie Frazier and the Tampa-2, he has also acquired and developed talented players to the point where they know the system well, can execute it without slowing down to think about their assignments, and can make changes on the fly as need be during the course of a game.
So, while the results may only show a little over a year of mostly elite level performance, the quality of the players and level of mastery of the system not only confirm the elite status of the Vikings' defensive unit, it also points to the ability to maintain elite status for many years to come.
Let's dive a little deeper into all that.
"Mike has always been one of those guys who does more with less,and then when he gets some players, the sky is the limit."
-NFL Personnel man whose team passed on Zimmer for their head coaching job
Re-Building from the Ground Up
Ben Goessling outlined the re-building process for the Vikings defense over the past three years since Leslie Frazier was let go and Mike Zimmer hired as the new head coach of the Vikings. It started with coaching, not just Zimmer himself, but the assistants he hired.
Perhaps the most valuable of the assistants he hired was defensive line coach Andre Patterson. He's coached younger guys like Danielle Hunter and Shamar Stephen to develop their talent in just a year or two, while also working with veterans like Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson to get the most from them as well.
Jerry Gray has also done a nice job developing DBs- perhaps with a little more attention from Mike Zimmer than Patterson has, as Zimmer used to be a DB coach himself and still tends to focus there as a coach.
Adam Zimmer coaching linebackers, with perhaps some input from George Edwards, who as defensive coordinator also coaches the scheme to the players and provides some quality control for Mike Zimmer, round out the coaching staff, with Zimmer calling the plays and overseeing the unit overall.
They work- every single day... that was a process back from the first day I got here, and they got it. I don't have to talk about effort anymore. They come out every day and they work. And that is what makes me feel good as a coach- they got it now.
-Vikings' Defensive Line Coach Andre Patterson
That coaching staff, along with GM Rick Spielman, have brought in and/or developed the core of the Vikings defense now: Harrison Smith, Anthony Barr, Xavier Rhodes, Linval Joseph, Eric Kendricks, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, and Trae Waynes among them.
That has helped the Vikings defensive unit get over the hump in terms of having quality starters with solid back-ups at just about every defensive position. More than that, the Vikings have players with state-of-the-art skill sets at every position group.
DBs can play press-man well and defend the run, in addition to playing zone coverages. They have adequate length and prototype speed. And they don't present any obvious mismatches for opposing offenses or QBs to exploit.
Defensive linemen can rush the passer at every position, while being effective against the run. The edge rushers can also drop in coverage if need be in zone blitz packages. Some linemen have position flexibility too, where they can play more than one position well.
Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, who play the majority of snaps at LB, don't have a lot of obvious weaknesses in their games either, and can do a lot of things well. Both can cover, defend the run, and blitz effectively, can cover a lot of ground and play with speed.
But overall, this isn't a defense with a dominating superstar- like Von Miller in Denver or Richard Sherman in Seattle. It is more of a team defense, without an obvious weak link, rather than a high profile threat. In that sense, it's more of a typical Mike Zimmer 'no-name' defense, like what he had in Cincinnati, where the focus is on the team aspects of the defense and scheme, rather than a couple dominating players.
As such, it's likely to last longer and be more consistent than those built around a marquee player(s). Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter all could be playing at a high level for the Vikings for the next five years. Jayron Kearse, MacKensie Alexander and Shamar Stephen could add to that list. That's almost the whole starting defense right now.
That will provide for a great deal of continuity and mastery of Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme, while providing next to nothing when it comes to personnel mismatches for opposing offenses to exploit, while allowing a great deal of scheme flexibility in game planning each week's opponent.
It's that sort of versatility, combined with playing at a high level as a team, that can lead to consistent high-level results so characteristic of elite-level performance. Being able to do multiple things well allows a defense (or offense for that matter) to tailor its approach and game plan to a particular opponent based on their strengths and weaknesses. In so doing, it also prevents opposing offenses from preparing to beat one particular coverage or player, or benefit from match-up advantages. Similarly, in-game adjustments can also be made easier, and allow the defense to respond effectively to a particular play or approach that had been successful.
But it all starts with having the players and developing them to the point where they can execute multiple assignments and tasks as needed for a particular game or situation.
Taking Away the QB Pre-Snap Read
Many have called Mike Zimmer's defensive a more aggressive scheme with it's signature double-A gap blitz look, but in truth it's really more aptly described as simply a more modern scheme. Pro Football Focus did a good analysis of the Vikings defensive scheme, and the various coverages and looks Mike Zimmer may use during the course of a game.
But a key aspect of Zimmer's defense is that he can disguise what the defense is going to do pre-snap, and effectively take away a QB's pre-snap read. Bill Belichick, a defensive coach himself under Bill Parcells, summarized Zimmer's scheme pretty well a couple years ago:
"They disguise well... all those guys do a good job of blitzing and covering and faking and man, zone- that’s really the scheme that Coach Zimmer runs. They do a good job with it. They’re all part of it."
"I’d say that’s one of their real strengths is they give you a bunch of, not so much different looks but different combinations off similar looks. You have to be ready for everybody…Sometimes it’s strong side, sometimes it’s weak side, sometimes it’s up the middle, sometimes it’s man, sometimes it’s zone, sometimes it’s blitz zone, sometimes it’s all-out blitz, sometimes it’s just max coverage and they drop everybody off but off that same look."
- Patriots head coach Bill Belichick
Some defenses will show their coverage pre-snap, and hope to out-execute the offense on the play. Other times defenses may show one coverage or look initially, and change it pre-snap, hoping to create confusion or disrupt the play call. Zimmer does some of these at times. He also can run any number of different types of man or zone coverage, and can vary them based on the team, personnel, down and distance, and field position on a given play.
But Zimmer is also able, based on the strength and versatility of his players, to do multiple coverages and blitzes from the same look pre-snap. For example, he may have 8 guys on every gap along the line of scrimmage, with just 2 CBs off the line and one deep safety. From that look, he can vary who drops into coverage, who blitzes, and what the coverage is.
By having solid players at every position, many that are versatile enough to pass rush, blitz, cover, and/or play run defense, along with a scheme that disguises what the defensive coverage and play call is, Zimmer effectively eliminates a QB's pre-snap read. This makes the QB's job much harder.
Like any defense, Zimmer's defense aims to stop the run and pressure the QB while effectively covering receivers. Once the defense has been effective in stopping the run, Zimmer has multiple tools to put pressure on the QB. One of those is eliminating his pre-snap read.
Imagine yourself an NFL quarterback. Every passing play, you basically have 3 seconds to get rid of the ball before any number of 6'5" 300 lbs guys battling in your face hit you and drive you into the turf. Needless to say, you probably look for any little bit of help or advantage you can get before the ball is snapped and all hell breaks loose. One big advantage is the pre-snap read. You can casually walk up under center, survey the field in relative calm - only the din of 60,000+ fans packed around you and all those 6'5" guys conveniently stationary and bent over in 3-point stances so you can see- and get a look at who's matched up against your receivers, whether it looks like zone or man coverage and what type. Based on that and your knowledge of what the play is, down and distance and field position, you probably have a good idea of where you may go with the ball, or maybe even call an audible to get a match-up you want.
So what if, after surveying the field pre-snap, you still had no idea where you were going to go with the ball, or what the defensive play call or coverage was? You'd most likely have to hold the ball a little longer, to see what happens. Given you only have about 3 seconds until you're either running for your life or buried in the turf, that isn't good.
Elite QBs almost always excel in reading defenses pre-snap. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady usually had/have the ball out in roughly 2 seconds. That didn't happen by waiting to see how the play developed after the ball was snapped.
So by eliminating the pre-snap read, you can also mitigate the advantages a savvy, veteran QB can bring to bear against you - make their life more difficult and make them work harder for everything they get. That can wear on them. Especially when you don't get the ball out soon enough and have to absorb multiple blows into the turf from 300 lbs guys going as fast as they can.
Beyond that, the multiple looks and multiple defensive play calls from the same look increases the pressure and degree of difficulty for the opposing offensive line to communicate and execute effectively. One mistake and the play fails.
But it all starts with players that have the speed, size, talent and versatility to perform multiple tasks well. Think about it: Every player on the Vikings defense, excepting the interior linemen, can pass rush, cover, blitz, or defend the run on any given play. Each player has their strengths and weaknesses, but all of them can be effective in any of those roles if need be.
As a defensive coordinator and play-caller, that gives you lots of tools and flexibility to defend just about any play or scheme an offense can throw at you. Having one of the most veteran, savvy defensive play-callers in Mike Zimmer making those calls helps too.
Lastly, there is another advantage for the defense when you have little for the offense to exploit, and have the ability to pressure them with both players and scheme: turnovers.
As Vikings fans, we're starting to see more takeaways by the defense this year. When opposing offenses, and particularly quarterbacks, are under pressure seemingly every play and have to work hard for everything they get, it tends to lead to more mistakes. QB pressure can lead to bad throws and INTs, or strips and fumbles. Aaron Rodgers, who's as good as any QB in the league in protecting the ball, had 3 fumbles (1 lost) and an INT against the Vikings week 2. Cam Newton had 3 INTs. Marcus Mariota had a fumble and an INT - both taken back for TDs.
That happens when there is no easy read, no easy match-up for a QB to exploit, and only small windows to throw to. Eventually they are forced to hold the ball, make a mistake or make a difficult or ill-advised throw. All can result in turnovers.
Continuing the Legacy
Long-time fans of the Vikings like to see the defense be the identity of this team, as it was during the Vikings golden-age period between 1968-1978 with the Purple People Eaters. And while the saying defense wins championships doesn't always hold, it usually does. Most recently teams like Denver and Seattle have made it to the big game largely on the strength of their defense. Even the Patriots, while more balanced and not usually thought of as a defensive team, have had top 8 or better defenses in their Super Bowl appearances. Bill Belichick was a defensive coach under Bill Parcells, just like Mike Zimmer.
In any case, the Vikings now have the talent, depth and versatility on defense, and have developed it to a level of mastery that allows not only a high level of performance, but also the flexibility to better tailor game plans for a given opponent.
The lack of any obvious mismatches or weak spots in any position or position group, combined with a modern and flexible defensive scheme and excellent coaching, results in a defensive unit that cannot be solved with any particular offensive game plan or personnel.
And that is what will make this an elite defensive unit for many years to come.