Minicamp gives players a chance to adjust to Zimmer's direct approach
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Mike Zimmer jumped back to avoid a collision with cornerback Robert Steeples as the Minnesota Vikings' first-year head coach got a little too close in one of Wednesday's defensive back drills.
Zimmer's direct approach and his staff's vocal demeanor have given Vikings players plenty to chew on as they digest a three-day minicamp this week reserved for teams with new head coaches before the NFL Draft.
"You want to see a coach, a head coach, coaching and you want to see him take it upon himself to make sure that everybody's doing the right thing and that's what you see yesterday at practice," defensive end Brian Robison said. "We're out here and he's actually grabbing guys and he's showing them what to do, how to use their hands, how to do their footwork.
"We've always had head coaches sit in meetings, but they've never really talked a whole lot. It's been about the defensive coordinator. Whereas Zimmer is, he's stepping up, he's running the meetings most of the time, going through the defensive calls."
Every coach has a different style, a different way to teach and approach players. It's only May and easy to be optimistic, but many players were enthusiastic about changes and their challenges ahead.
Alterations include linebackers and the secondary sitting in on a defensive-line meeting or players lifting together instead of on their own; instead of music filling the walls of the Fieldhouse, it's the barking orders of coaches, led by Zimmer.
Zimmer's title has changed, but his on-field approach seemingly hasn't after 35 years as a position coach and defensive coordinator.
"I'm assuming they're being coached differently. I know I'm coaching it probably like they haven't been coached before, so I think all of that is new for them," Zimmer said. "I get around the offense as much as I can, but at this stage I just feel like I have to spend more time with the defense. I have to be in the meetings and run the meetings, actually, you know, coach. I have to coach. That's what I am: I'm a coach. And so just because I'm the head coach doesn't mean stop coaching. It means you coach everything, but you still do the best job you can to get guys better."
Getting guys better for Zimmer and his staff means finding the devil in the details, and they've made it clear to players they're set on using this limited time to sculpt their technique - right down to hands and feet placement.
Safety Harrison Smith gets the most out of running around in shorts and a helmet by studying his own tape on the practice field with coaches, who point out minute flaws that the untrained eye would struggle to spot.
"It's little things, but i think they're big things. Like you said, toe movement. On film sometimes you can see my toe coming up, which means I'm on my heel," Smith said. "So that just means I need to put more weight on my toes. Small things like that that will give you a fraction of a second out of your break and maybe get an interception instead of a [pass deflection] or make a play I wouldn't have made."
Though Zimmer has spent the majority of his time so far on the Vikings' defense, time will tell if he chooses to balance out his duties to focus on both sides of the ball. However, the defense seems to need the most work and has fewer pegged starters than the Vikings' offense, led by veteran offensive coordinator and former head coach Norv Turner.
To turn around one of the NFL's worst defenses from last season (30th in third- and fourth-down conversions allowed), Zimmer wiped the slate clean and started the Vikings from scratch by implementing his own system that found success in his six years with Cincinnati.
In order to install that system, Zimmer uses these three days to get a feel for how each individual player likes to be coached, all while players are tasked with changing not only their techniques, but the terminology to make sure coach and player are speaking the same language.
"There's no doubt about it. They're definitely testing us," Robison said. "They're putting in a lot of stuff to see how quick we can memorize those types of things, to see how we play on the run. Very fast tempo during practice. Those type of deals that put not only a physical strain on you, but mentally. That's what we need. We need to be able to really push ourselves and see where that threshold is for us.
"They're pushing and we've just got to fall in line and make sure we make things happen."