EAGAN, Minn. – Following a 38-31 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, Mike Zimmer knew it was time to make changes.
The Minnesota Vikings went 1-2-1 in their first four games and allowed 27.5 points per game in that span. Since Rams quarterback Jared Goff dropped 465 yards on the Vikings, Zimmer’s defense has averaged 18.8 points per game against, allowed a grand total of zero 300-yard passing games and created 10 takeaways — one of which turned into a fumble return touchdown by Danielle Hunter that sealed the deal against the Detroit Lions to give the Vikings a 5-3-1 record heading into the bye week.
Speaking with the Twin Cities media on Tuesday, general manager Rick Spielman went in-depth on the turning point for the Vikings defense, saying that opponents had learned how to beat some elements of the Minnesota scheme, so Zimmer made changes on the fly.
“I love watching film with Zim on Monday mornings at 5:30 because he is very smart on seeing what’s happening and I know he spent hours and hours…on how offenses have adapted to some of the things we’re doing on defense and how other teams have copied,” Spielman said. “There’s a lot of smart people in this league. In order to keep moving forward, you just can’t keep getting hit in the head with the same thing. A lot of the different adjustments he’s made have made a tremendous [difference] in how we’ve played over the last four or five weeks.”
The Rams figured out different ways to create mismatches, getting receivers alone on linebackers on several occasions for explosive plays. Last week the Lions attempted to use some of the same concepts that beat the Vikings’ defense early on, but were thwarted.
“They tried to run two of those roll out screens yesterday and we got hurt with them earlier in the year – I think San Francisco had one and probably the Rams had one and there was someone else, so we’ve had to make adjustments on how we’re playing that. Yesterday I think they lost yards on both of them,” Zimmer said on Monday.
Here’s one of the plays. The Lions send two receivers out and a zone run look to offense’s left side. The Vikings have safeties waiting for the receiver crossing the field Marvin Jones, leaving the only option for Stafford to toss the ball back across the field to Kerryon Johnson. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson is there waiting for him.
When the Vikings signed Sheldon Richardson last offseason, the expectation was that they would stay at the top of the NFL in defense as they were in 2017, but key injuries and the absence of Everson Griffen for a five-week stretch weakened a roster that had been fully healthy for nearly all of last year. Over the past four weeks, however, the Vikings have found ways to make up for losses of Xavier Rhodes versus New Orleans, Linval Joseph against the Jets and Anthony Barr for the past two contests.
“Zim and the defensive staff…have gotten very creative of doing different things and using different combinations,” Spielman said. “You even see it last week when they did some certain things and Mackensie Alexander [sacked Matthew Stafford] and no one touched him coming off a blitz. It’s always evolving. When you are missing critical pieces, how do you adapt to that and adapt to that adversity? That’s what makes this staff unique.”
“Those are the adjustments that Zim made to the scheme, to me that’s great coaching,” Spielman added.
Making changes to his defense is nothing new for Zimmer. He once switched from year to year from the 4-3 to 3-4 defense while in Dallas. The Vikings’ head coach said that teams are always catching up to innovations and he’s always trying to stay one step ahead.
“It always starts out slow,” Zimmer said, “One of our coverages when I first went to Dallas, not first but when I was in Dallas, we had Deion Sanders. I didn’t want him playing a certain style of defense, so we were trying to allow him to be man-to-man and so what we had to do was to figure out a way where he could still be man-to-man, but we could still get extra guys and play man within the zone combinations. Well, we were pretty good at it and then next thing I know I see Philadelphia playing it.”
One of the areas the Vikings changed the most has been their pressures, especially on third down. Zimmer became well know for the double-A gap blitz, in which both linebackers line up on either side of the center and rush the quarterback, but he hasn’t dialed up that call very often simply because opponents have adapted.
“I’ve had many coaches say they watch our blitz tape every week to see what we’re doing. That’s kind of how it starts and then they try and copy it,” Zimmer said. “Quite honestly I don’t think we’ve run hardly any double A blitzes this year, because everybody is practicing them so we do something else.”
The Vikings’ defense is now No. 1 in the NFL in sacks and No. 1 in third down success rate.
Zimmer said that each week the staff specifically focuses on the ways the previous opponent attacked his defense and had the most success.
“Every Monday we come in we start on the other team after we’re done all this stuff and then we’ll sit down and we’ll look at plays that hurt us,” Zimmer said. “We’ll go back through the season and look at plays that hurt us and kind of see if there’s a pattern going on. We’re kind of constantly doing that. Same thing offensively so we can figure out what we have to change or adjust the coverage or make different calls or game plan things so we don’t get hurt.
Zimmer’s defense will have all sorts of tests in the second half of the season. Next week they match up on primetime with a vastly improved Chicago Bears offense, which ranks fifth in the NFL in total points and then they go against Packers, Patriots and Seahawks in consecutive weeks.
“Every year is a new year, but I do feel like we’re starting to look a lot more like I kind of expect us to and I hope we continue to do that,” Zimmer said. “But yeah, I do think it’s still kind of a learning process.”