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Mike Zimmer’s Defense Is Built for This

Teddy Bridgewater’s injury has put the Vikings’ season in flux. The team’s hopes now rest on the ascendant group shaped in its coach’s image.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It is the afternoon of August 21, and about 10 minutes after cutting practice short and storming off the field at the Vikings’ training facility in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, Mike Zimmer is talking about having fun. The third-year head coach is sitting cross-legged behind the desk in his office; a red line traverses his forehead where the band of a hat used to be. A half dozen of them are strewn haphazardly about the cavernous room.

Zimmer turned 60 in June, and up until a few years ago, it felt as if digs like these would never be his. He worked as the Bengals defensive coordinator for six seasons, and for two consecutive campaigns (2011 and 2012) he orchestrated one of the league’s best units while having only one homegrown first-round pick among his starting 11. It still wasn’t enough to convince a team to make him a head coach, as he was repeatedly passed over in favor of retreads and college sensations. The Vikings finally gave Zimmer a shot at a top job in 2014. A year later, Minnesota won the NFC North for the first time since 2009.

Mike Zimmer (Getty Images)
Mike Zimmer (Getty Images)

So anyway: having fun. Zimmer is talking about it in the context of defensive end Danielle Hunter, Minnesota’s third-round pick from the 2015 draft. To prepare for last October’s matchup against Denver, the Vikings used Hunter as a scout-team double for Broncos outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware. Rather than play from a three-point stance the way he typically would in Zimmer’s defense, Hunter simulated Ware by rushing the passer standing up. Until that point, the rookie had struggled while playing with a hand on the ground; at the snap, he’d pop straight up, losing vital burst. As a stand-up rusher, though, Hunter’s problem suddenly vanished. He spent the next few days “rushing like crazy,” Zimmer says, and after being inactive for two weeks in September and then playing limited snaps against Denver, he was tapped to start Minnesota’s next game in place of the sick Everson Griffen. Over the final 12 weeks of the season, Hunter collected six sacks.

“It really is [an experiment],” Zimmer says. “You’re just trying to look at different things — ‘How can we help this guy get better?’ It’s fun for me. That’s why I do it.”

When Zimmer arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings defense was perfectly constructed for a coach who finds joy in discovering ways to get the most out of players. The season before they had one of the league’s worst outfits on that side of the ball, but they brimmed with potential thanks to a slew of first-round talent and a collection of shrewdly chosen free agents. In two years, they went from dead last in scoring defense to fifth, and they’ve done it by way of intellectual brutality, with Zimmer constantly finding creative methods to squeeze what he can out of players up and down the roster.

The hope for the Vikings this fall was that they’d take the next step, joining teams like Denver, Seattle, and Carolina among the defensive elite. Now, in order to contend in their division, hope won’t be enough. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was lost for the season to a complete tear of his ACL on Tuesday, and the franchise’s playoff chances have already begun to fade. Without him, the ceiling for the offense has all but caved in, but Year 3 could bring something else in Minnesota: the zenith of Zimmer’s defensive plan. “This group is more confident right now,” Zimmer says. “They’re pretty resilient. Things don’t really faze them.”

He better be right. To survive this season, the Vikings will have to become the league’s next great defense.

Zimmer’s first gig as an NFL defensive coordinator came with the Cowboys in 2000. For all of his seven seasons on the job, Dallas featured one or both of Roy Williams and Darren Woodson, and Zimmer saw them as safeties who would be wasted by taking on simplified roles in his defense. Rather than sticking either at the back end as a traditional center fielder, Zimmer deployed Williams and Woodson as guys who could do everything from covering slot receivers to rushing the passer.

This approach became a staple of Zimmer’s system. In 2008, it followed him to Cincinnati, where “free” safety Reggie Nelson eventually played near the line of scrimmage and blitzed more often than “strong” safety George Iloka. When Zimmer and his staff started installing the scheme in Minnesota, that’s the version Harrison Smith studied. For him, frigid Minneapolis had just become paradise. “Doing everything, that’s why I think it’s cool,” Smith says. “If you’re just doing one thing all the time, you don’t get to mix it up. When you get to be everywhere, that’s what makes it fun.”

Harrison Smith (Getty Images)
Harrison Smith (Getty Images)

With some safeties, a move closer to the ball happens out of necessity. They don’t have the range or temperament to be a team’s last line of defense, so they’re better served creeping forward. Smith has no such problem. Since he arrived in Minnesota as a first-round pick in 2012, he’s consistently been among the best cover safeties in the league. Zimmer’s motivation for moving Smith around his defense boils down to not wanting to leave meat on the bone.

“We always think, ‘How can we use Harrison Smith more so he’s not sitting back in the middle of the field?’” Zimmer says. “Now, he’s a good player in the middle of the field, but there are so many more things he can do that we have to try to take advantage of.”

Under Zimmer’s tutelage for the past two seasons, Smith has done them all: seven interceptions, two forced fumbles, two touchdowns, and 4.5 sacks. No safety in the league is asked to wear more hats, which is why earlier this summer no safety in the league got paid more. Smith received a contract extension in June that includes $28.6 million guaranteed, then the most at his position. As it turns out, Zimmer’s brand of safety play can be lucrative.

Smith had spent time in the box under former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, but with Zimmer, the 6-foot-2, 214-pounder plays deep barely half the time. Instead, he spends his snaps stalking running backs, chasing slot receivers, and best of all, blitzing a whole lot. According to Pro Football Focus, no safety in the league was more effective as a pass rusher than Smith in 2015, when he finished the season with 1.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries in just 13 games.

Sacks and short-circuited drives are the ultimate goals for a unit that blitzes defensive backs, but not the only ones. By letting Smith chase the QB, Zimmer is also after subtler returns. Think of it as the football equivalent of feeding a defensive-minded big man in the post; allowing safeties to rush the passer provides a jolt of energy by keeping them engaged in a facet of the game in which they’re often forgotten. “I think when they get to do a variety of things, they feel like they’re involved in the game plan,” Zimmer says. “They feel like, ‘OK, here’s my opportunity to make another play.’”

Smith was the most valuable piece on the Vikings defense during Zimmer’s first season in Minnesota, but the group’s leap last year came only after Anthony Barr made one of his own. To project how Barr would originally fit into the defense, the Vikings staff had to use some imagination. At UCLA, Barr spent two years playing running back before transitioning to a pass-rushing outside linebacker role for his junior and senior seasons. Yet Minnesota viewed him as something different. It saw Barr as a move linebacker who could provide pressure in certain scenarios but would primarily play off the line.

Physically, linebackers coach Adam Zimmer — yes, Mike’s son — saw all he needed, both on film and at the 2014 combine. At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, Barr is massive for a modern linebacker, but his frame does little to inhibit his movement. He’s fast in a straight line (4.66 in the 40), but what’s more remarkable is how well he changes direction. Barr’s 6.82-second time in the three-cone drill put him in the 91st percentile of all outside linebackers; it was one-tenth of a second faster than Luke Kuechly.

“He’s a very good athlete,” says Eric Kendricks, Barr’s former UCLA roommate and current Vikings teammate, “but at times you don’t really know how much of an athlete he is because everything he does is effortless.”

Barr visited Minnesota in the lead-up to the 2014 draft, and for every question he faced about the Vikings’ ever-evolving defense, he had an answer at the ready. “He did it about as well as anybody I’ve had in a pre-draft meeting,” Adam Zimmer says. Minnesota took Barr ninth overall, and though he missed OTAs because UCLA is on the quarter system, it didn’t take long for him to impress in his first practice — and on his first day as an off-the-line defender — during June minicamp. All spring, the unit’s young linebackers had been shredded by red zone crossing routes. According to Adam Zimmer, Barr “basically yawned at [them] and said, ‘This is easy.’”

Anthony Barr (Getty Images)
Anthony Barr (Getty Images)

“He covered it like he’d seen it a million times, and I said, ‘He’s a natural,’” Zimmer says. “It didn’t take very long for me to realize he was going to be just fine.”

With players wading into completely new positional waters, the inclination for some head coaches is to ease them along, introducing new tasks and more complex ideas only after they’ve mastered the basic principles. Mike Zimmer’s approach runs counter to that. He prefers to immediately throw his players into the deep end, without floaties. “I’m the opposite of most people,” says Zimmer. “They say, ‘OK, let’s let him do the easy things and let him get comfortable with that.’ I say, ‘No, no, no. Let’s put him in the worst situations possible and see if he can handle it.’”

As a rookie, Barr led Minnesota’s linebackers in snaps (776) while playing only 12 games. He was the Sam linebacker in base defenses and the Dime in sub packages, so he rarely came off the field. “Obviously at first it was, ‘How is this going to work? Is this something I’m going to enjoy?’” Barr says. “My first month at the position was kind of iffy, but after the first game, after the first season, it was like, ‘This is my spot. This is exactly where I belong.’”

Barr covered running backs, rushed the passer, and even relayed the play call to the defensive huddle. In other words, he stayed afloat just fine. Now, as Minnesota braces for a campaign full of uncertainty, his younger teammates will try to do the same.

In his second NFL season, Barr went from promising talent to bona fide superstar. Combined with the pass-rushing skill set he brought from college, his fully formed coverage ability made him a multifaceted weapon of the sort that the Vikings had discovered in Smith. Asking for a similar advance from Minnesota’s 2015 draft class is ambitious, but these have quickly become desperate times.

When the Vikings defense was at its best last fall, it was when Barr, Smith, and Kendricks were all threats to rush the passer. To help that look be as lethal as it can be in 2016, Kendricks, a linebacker, will need to take a step forward in coverage (much like the one Barr took a year ago), and Minnesota’s young cornerbacks will need to make a more significant contribution than they did last season.

“We have to have good corners, the way we play,” Zimmer says. “That allows Harrison Smith to do more. It allows Barr to do more. … When you’re protecting the corners, it doesn’t allow you to be as aggressive defensively as we want to be.”

The Vikings had the seventh-highest pressure rate in football a year ago, according to Football Outsiders, but finished only 21st in DVOA on such plays (sacks, hurries, and forced scrambles). A bounce-back season from 2013 first-round corner Xavier Rhodes and additional opportunities for 2015 first-rounder Trae Waynes (who played only 18.1 percent of snaps as a rookie) should help Zimmer’s defense take better advantage of the instances when they do manage to fluster quarterbacks.

Even if both Kendricks and Waynes are massively improved this year, though, there’s a chance that neither will emerge as Minnesota’s most valuable find from the 2015 pool. Zimmer says that aside from identifying intelligence, his first priority when drafting players is taking guys with off-the-charts athletic ability. Hunter certainly has that. According to the workout numbers listed on Mockdraftable.com, here are the five players with physical profiles that most closely resemble Hunter: Kamerion Wimbley, Barkevious Mingo, Jadeveon Clowney, Dion Jordan, and Gaines Adams. All five of those guys went in the top half of the first round; Hunter went 88th overall.

What Hunter lacked, compared to those other players, is a proven track record of success. He recorded only 1.5 sacks while playing 80 percent of the snaps during his final season at LSU. The Vikings didn’t care; with both Hunter and Barr, they valued projection over production, and it might have netted them two front-seven cornerstones who, along with former first-round pick Sharrif Floyd and standouts Griffen and Linval Joseph, could make up the most imposing pass rush in the league. More than any other, that’s the area of Minnesota’s roster that has a chance to take over games all on its own — and mask some of the roster’s other flaws in the process.

In an earlier portion of the August 21 practice that Zimmer would go on to scrap, Minnesota’s corners worked on bump-and-run drills. As Zimmer walked past, Terence Newman flagged him down. He wanted some help with his technique, a request befitting a young cornerback hungry for insight. Only Newman is 37; this is his 14th NFL season.

Terence Newman (AP Images)
Terence Newman (AP Images)

When Newman was drafted by the Cowboys fifth overall in 2003, Zimmer was his defensive coordinator. After Dallas released him nine years later, Newman’s choice for finding a new team was easy. He went to the Bengals, where Zimmer was working. “He was the factor,” Newman says. “That’s an easy one. I wouldn’t have gone to Cincinnati if Zim wasn’t there.” Meanwhile, slot cornerback Captain Munnerlyn has played for two beloved coaches in Zimmer and the Panthers’ Ron Rivera. He acknowledges that Rivera is less harsh, but in a way, Zimmer’s candor is what players love. “He’s a guy that keeps it up front with you,” Munnerlyn says. “If you’re not playing well, he’s going to let you know. He’s not going to hold it in: ‘Oh, I’ll tell him tomorrow.’”

Zimmer knows that some players struggle with his approach at first. He mentions Kendricks by name. “As a rookie, he wasn’t sure how to take some of the things I said,” Zimmer says. “Now, when I say something to him, it kind of rolls off his back.” They all learn, as Newman did years ago, that he only wants what’s best.

That was clear on Tuesday with the way Zimmer handled everything that happened after Bridgewater’s devastating injury, from the compassion he showed by ending practice early to the sadness he expressed while talking about his team’s feelings toward its QB. Addressing the Vikings’ outlook, Zimmer was as straightforward as ever. “We’re not looking for excuses,” he said during his press conference. “We’re going to fight like we always do. We have some great football players on this team and we’ll figure out ways to win football games.”

The sentiment is similar to one Joseph shared the week prior, when he tried to explain what drew him to Zimmer and the Vikings as a free agent in 2014. Joseph was only 25 at the time and coming off a career season in New York. He seemed a perfect candidate to elevate his game in Minnesota’s innovative scheme, but the appeal went beyond that: Zimmer had a reputation for finding the best in any situation. Joseph wanted to be a part of that.

“He’s going to fight for you to the end,” Joseph says. “And we’re going to fight for him to the end.”