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What’s Next for the Vikings Defense ?

NFL Combine - Day 2 Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

For the first time in the Mike Zimmer era, there will likely be more changes on the defensive side of the ball, rather than the offensive side, this off-season.

Indeed those changes are already underway.

Gone is the defensive coordinator, most would say in name only, George Edwards. Gone also is defensive backs coach Jerry Gray.

Promoted, but still maintaining their position coach status, are new co-defensive coordinators Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer.

Incoming is new Senior Assistant Dom Capers, the longtime Packers defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach Daronte Jones, most recently holding the same job with the Bengals and Dolphins. Zimmer also hired two new assistant position coaches - Roy Anderson for DBs and Imarjaye Albury (former DL coach with Arkansas - Armon Watts’ alma mater) for the defensive line.

All the coaching changes - Zimmer really just kept his son Adam and Andre Patterson on - along with the hiring of Dom Capers, is an attempt by Zimmer to bring new ideas to his defensive scheme. Zimmer has said he’s been running his scheme for a long, long time now and was looking for some new ideas.

After the Dom Capers hire, which left many scratching their heads, Zimmer was asked if he was switching to a 3-4 defense, given that’s what Capers has run in the past. Capers’ scheme was a 3-4 zone blitz scheme, which Dick LeBeau (and Capers) ran in Pittsburgh and made famous many years ago. Zimmer seemed to play down that idea, said you really needed to commit to it before the draft and free agency to get the personnel, and that he was really just looking for new ideas from a guy that’s been around a while - but has taken a different approach than Zimmer over the years.

4-3 or 3-4 or Hybrid or What ?

When it comes to defensive front alignment, Zimmer has pretty much always (1 year exception in Dallas under Parcells) been a 4-3 guy. But he hired a 3-4 guy to advise him of new ideas. And the Vikings just signed what could be the missing piece for a 3-4 alignment in 340 lbs. nose tackle Michael Pierce. Pierce comes from the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme, although he could play NT in either scheme just fine.

Beyond that, the Vikings have a number of players on their roster that could be 3-4 defensive ends: Armon Watts, Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Jayln Holmes, and even Ifeadi Odenigbo or Hercules Mata’afa. Or they could be defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme, just as they have been the last couple years.

In terms of outside linebackers for a 3-4 scheme, the Vikings could use Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr in those spots. Ifeadi Odenigbo too. If they extend Everson Griffen, he could play there. Maybe even Hercules Mata’afa.

Behind them would be Eric Kendricks, and Ben Gedeon in base defense, or maybe Mata’afa or Cameron Smith or Eric Wilson.

So okay the Vikings have the guys, in theory, but why mess with Zimmer’s 4-3?

The answer to that is to better utilize the guys on the roster. For all the defensive tackles on the Vikings roster, none of them are ideal for a three technique. Most are too slow off the snap, and Mata’afa is still too small/not strong enough.

Anthony Barr is better as an OLB in a 3-4 alignment, like he was at UCLA, than he is as a SLB in Zimmer’s scheme. He’s better as a run defender and pass rusher than he is in coverage, although he could drop into a zone coverage just fine as an edge rusher, rather than tail a TE or RB.

A 3-4 alignment could also be used more effectively to defend the run, and outside run, than the Vikings were able to do last year in the 4-3. The 49ers game is a case in point, but also Seattle and the 2nd Packers game too.

More specifically, they could utilize Michael Pierce, Armon Watts, and Shamar Stephen as the NT and DEs, which would be pretty solid against inside runs, and have Hunter and Barr to contain the outside runs with Kendricks, Gedeon or Harrison Smith roaming free to make or assist with the tackle.

A hybrid scheme could also be run, with Hunter, Watts, Pierce, Odenigbo, and Barr either making up the OLB/DE/NT front or having Barr shift back to his old spot at SLB and Odenigdo take the DE spot, Pierce and Watts at NT and DT, and Hunter at the other DE spot.

Beyond the hybrid alignment, there are the variety of stunts and blitzes that can be employed off either alignment. The idea here isn’t Zimmer’s 4-3, or Capers’ 3-4, but more what the Ravens were doing last year - leading the league in blitz percentage and the most effective stunting defense in the league.

Overall, moving to more of a hybrid scheme, given the Vikings have the personnel to do it, could allow them to match-up better against a run heavy team, including outside run teams, while also being flexible enough to dial up multiple pressure packages against a pass-heavy team - or in key situations. It could also allow the Vikings to better match-up (i.e. exploit) offensive linemen weaknesses.

And Then There’s the Back End

Being more robust up-front - against both run and pass - can certainly help out what are sure to be less experienced cornerbacks for the Vikings this season. Whether the Vikings roll with Mike Hughes and Holton Hill as outside cornerbacks, or draft a starter, or some other combination, these are going to be less experienced guys. Maybe they can be as good or better - Rhodes and Waynes didn’t set a high bar last season. But easing their duties makes some sense.

In that regard, there is a lot to be said for keeping safety Anthony Harris, although not sure if it will be affordable in the end.

In any case, the new starting cornerbacks will likely have some different skill sets, and different strengths and weaknesses. At their best, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes were solid in man coverage. Rhodes was the prototype press-man cornerback, while Waynes was usually better in man than zone. I don’t think any of the new starting cornerbacks will be top press-man corners. At least not initially. They may be better in zone though.

That could lead to more zone coverage. The Bengals, with Vikings new DB coach Roy Anderson, played a lot of zone coverage last year - 72.2% of the time - 3rd most in the league. It may not be surprising then if the Vikings use more zone coverage this year, and not much Cover-1. We’ll see.

New Ideas - But It’s Also About Personnel

Mike Zimmer has expressed his desire for new ideas, and made coaching changes this off-season to make that happen. Zimmer has long been seen as an innovator on the defensive side of the ball, and is surely well aware if you’re not innovating or evolving your scheme, you’re falling behind as opponents work to counter it. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse, a copy-cat league, and all that.

So the Vikings could go with a hybrid or more of a 3-4 this coming season, as described above, and pair it with more Cover-3 - with Hughes and Hill taking the outside deep zones, Anthony Harris the deep middle, and Andrew Sendejo (assuming they can extend him without much problem which seems very doable), Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith taking the three underneath zones.

Sendejo playing an underneath zone is well within his skill set, whereas playing man coverage against a typically small, shifty slot receiver wouldn’t be ideal. Kendricks and Smith both received elite grades in coverage last year, along with Anthony Harris, which means QBs aren’t gonna throw there hoping to leverage a match-up advantage. And if the front five can get good and consistent pressure on the QB, which is more likely than rushing four, that doesn’t leave him much time to see if a receiver is open deep outside against Hughes or Hill. Are they going to just launch it and hope for the best? Cover-3 is designed to take away the deep and over-the-top threats as the outside corners are retreating to their deep zones just before the snap, making it difficult for them to get beat deep. And playing a deep third zone rather than man, they can be looking back for the ball as well, making it easier compared to man coverage.

Hughes was a first-round pick with the measurables and skillset to be a top corner. But he needed more experience. Holton Hill was probably a 2nd or 3rd round talent that went undrafted because of marijuana issues. That issue goes away with the new CBA, at least any further suspensions for that reason. Now he just needs to stay off the PEDs, which was a one-time offense, rather than a long-standing problem.

But both Hughes and Hill have the skillsets and measurables to be quality starters as outside cornerbacks. Where they’ve faltered for the most part so far has been mentally - blowing an assignment rather than just getting beat. More experience, and perhaps a more simplified coverage scheme, could help them both in that regard. The other thing that has slowed their development is being able to stay on the field. For Hughes, it’s been injuries. For Hill, it’s been suspensions. Hopefully neither of those issues will continue to plague them as much in the future as they have in the past.

Overall, there is a lot to be said for a hybrid scheme or even a 3-4 alignment, given the Vikings personnel. There’s no doubt the Vikings need to make better use of Anthony Barr, and the rest of the defensive line could be used just as well, if not better, in 3-4 roles rather than 4-3 ones. Giving Danielle Hunter more space probably doesn’t hurt either.

For the back end, having what amounts to an extra pass rusher, and a scheme that makes it harder to exploit less experienced corners, and less likely for them to blow an assignment, makes a lot of sense too.

Change is Good

At the end of the day, players and rosters change. Schemes change. Opponents adapt and evolve. That is the life and reality of the NFL. If coaches and teams don’t adapt to meet changing personnel and schemes, they go downhill. The best teams not only adapt year-to-year, but also game-to-game and even series-to-series as necessary.

Mike Zimmer recognizes all that. And so far this off-season, seems to be embracing it.

We’ll see where it leads.