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The Education of the Vikings Defense

All 11 of Minnesota’s defensive starters have been with the team for at least three seasons. That’s exceedingly rare in a league defined by turnover—and it’s created a unit that’s devastatingly complex.

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When George Edwards talks about the Vikings defense, there’s one phrase that he brings up repeatedly: four years. That’s how long Minnesota’s defensive coordinator has worked alongside head coach Mike Zimmer to oversee this talented unit. It’s also how long many of the team’s most important players have studied and developed under Zimmer’s tutelage. “From Game 1 to where we are now, it changes,” Edwards says of the Vikings’ scheme. “From year to year, it changes. Over the past four years, it’s always evolved.”

The other stingy defenses that will play on conference championship weekend came together after an injection of new blood. Free-agent signees Calais Campbell and A.J. Bouye helped remake the Jaguars defense in their first year with the team. Offseason trades for Timmy Jernigan and Ronald Darby were the final flourishes for an Eagles unit loaded with potential.

There was no such turnover for a Vikings group that finished the 2017 regular season no. 1 in both points allowed (15.8 per game) and Football Outsiders’s weighted DVOA. All 11 of Minnesota’s defensive starters have been with team for at least three seasons. Seven have been with this coaching staff since it came to Minneapolis in 2014. More than half of Zimmer’s key defenders have what amounts to a bachelor’s degree in his system, and those who don’t are just a year away from graduation.

A reservoir of shared experiences feeds into a collective consciousness on that side of the ball. Rather than merely executing one of the NFL’s most complicated schemes, the Vikings are able to brainstorm, solve problems, and riff on concepts that greener players would fundamentally struggle to understand. There’s an undeniable allure to all that’s new about the surprising collection of teams left vying for this season’s Super Bowl. Yet the biggest advantage for Minnesota’s defense is that, heading into Sunday’s NFC title game in Philadelphia, new is a thing of the past.

“I think we just kind of understand what [each player] is going to do without really having to say it,” safety Andrew Sendejo says. “That just allows you to play off each other, play faster. You know where your help is at. It kind of all works together.”

Chicago Bears v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In the days leading up to a game, the Vikings defenders will exchange a flurry of text messages. Whenever Sendejo spots an interesting tidbit on film, he’ll take a video and send it to the relevant parties. Sometimes that includes the linebackers or other members of the secondary, but typically it’s a back-and-forth with All-Pro safety Harrison Smith. “I feel like pretty much every night we’re sending each other videos of certain plays,” Sendejo says. “‘Hey, how would you play this in this coverage? How do you see this? This is a play that could create a problem if we’re in this call.’”

The goal is to create a running, easily accessible list of the formations and play designs that could cause issues against a specific coverage. In the middle of a meeting, Sendejo can pull out his phone, scroll to a play, and have it at his fingertips without digging through the tape on his iPad.

The constant conversation between the guys at the back of the Vikings defense speaks to the enhanced level of discourse among this unit as a whole. It’s been years since Edwards and his staff had to teach any full-time starters the basics of playing a position. Because they don’t have to waste time drilling guys on simple tasks such as where to line up, the Vikings are able to focus on finding solutions to various scenarios an offense might present. Being reactionary has given way to being proactive, and the unit’s shared wealth of experience has provided a massive backlog of potential answers.

“In the past, you just didn’t understand [basic concepts] as well,” Sendejo says of his first years playing under Zimmer. “You’re legitimately confused about how to play something. … [Now Smith and I] will both be like, ‘Oh shit, that would be difficult.’ Then we’ll try to figure out, ‘OK, who would you see taking that? And who would you see taking that?’ And it helps, too, that we’ll occasionally see something that hasn’t been brought up in a meeting and ask the coach, ‘How would we play this?’”

The benefits afforded by familiarity transcend just game-planning, though. The group’s time together has also improved younger players’ defensive technique. Many of the unit’s most vocal communicators are the members of the secondary who man the middle of the field, and Smith, Sendejo, and slot corner Terence Newman have all been in Minnesota since Zimmer arrived. In Newman’s case, his education has been nearly three times that long, as he’s spent nine seasons playing for Zimmer (as a coordinator and head coach) between the Cowboys, Bengals, and Vikings. Minnesota secondary coach Jerry Gray says that many college cornerbacks enter the league having never played the type of tight, sticky man coverage that the Vikings favor. Newman acted as a proxy for Zimmer by instilling the notion in younger teammates that it’s never acceptable to allow a reception, no matter how short the throw. “He’s thinking like Coach,” Gray says. “And it helps. Any time you’ve got a veteran guy who understands what you’re trying to do and is sending the same message, it helps you so much.”

Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has drafted a trio of first- and second-round cornerbacks (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander) since Zimmer got to town. Gray says that Newman helped teach them the tenets of Minnesota’s tight version of man coverage that might’ve been absent from their respective college defenses. “I love what I fell into, honestly,” Alexander says of Newman’s tutelage.

Rhodes is another player who’s thrived with Newman’s help. He’s always played a rough style of man-to-man that torments opposing receivers. To combat his physicality, offenses have long done all they can to take their best receiver away from the sideline and out of Rhodes’s clutches, using receiver stacks, clusters, and cut splits. In Minnesota’s 29-24 win over the Saints in last week’s divisional round, New Orleans consistently lined up receiver Michael Thomas in the slot on its final drive in an attempt to create space. Rhodes, who was voted All-Pro for the first time this season, proved up to the task. “I think his confidence in what we’re trying to get accomplished from week to week, it’s just grown so much,” Edwards says. “Over repetition over time, over experience in the system, he’s gotten a lot more comfortable that we can do different things with him.”

Whether it’s through preparation tricks, technical hints, or superior communication, all the players with extended time in Zimmer’s scheme have enjoyed subtle benefits that wouldn’t be available elsewhere. The best player on the Vikings defense, though, has aced the advanced courses and tilted Zimmer’s teaching toward the avant-garde.

Minnesota Vikings v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Among all of Zimmer’s pupils, Smith is the one who might have spent too much time in the lab. After outgrowing the basic teachings of the Vikings defense long ago, the sixth-year standout’s methods have begun to creep toward the experimental. Smith is Qyburn in compression sleeves, and where he aligns before a play has virtually no bearing on where he’ll end up. His approach is equal parts frenetic and controlled, a choreographed chaos that leaves the players on both teams guessing. “Sometimes he does such a good job of disguising [his plan] that I’m thinking, ‘Did he maybe get the wrong call?’” Vikings backup safety Anthony Harris says. “‘Does he know something that I don’t know?’”

Harrison Smith

Smith has shown the ability to do it all, helping him emerge as one of the NFL’s most indispensable defenders. On just 29 snaps as a pass rusher this season, Smith created 10 pressures, tops in the league among safeties. His five interceptions is tied for third at the position, and only six safeties had more stops against the run. He can seamlessly float between every area of the field, and because of the way he moves before the snap, it can feel like he’s manning all of them simultaneously.

“Whether we’re playing him down there in the box, whether we’re playing him in the middle of the field, whether he’s playing half the field, whether he’s blitzing, his skill set brings so much for us schematically,” Edwards says. “Hopefully we’re able to confuse some quarterbacks, and offenses won’t be able to account for, ‘OK, he’s going to always be here.’”

What enables Smith to get away with such frenzied movements is a deep-rooted knowledge of why he’s making each specific choice. He’s not frenetic for the sake of it. He’s developed a self-assuredness that comes from thousands of reps in his role within Zimmer’s defense. Flashing into the box and bailing back to the deep half of the field gives a quarterback the illusion that Minnesota has a single-high safety when it’s really in Cover-2. Waiting until the last moment to creep toward the line of scrimmage before a blitz messes with an offensive line’s protection calls. Crashing hard to set the edge, like he did on the below goal-line run in the fourth quarter against the Saints, allows the Vikings’ linebackers to clean up any run that may spill inside. “Every game, he’s coming up with something,” Harris says. “It may not look like as big to the outside eye looking in as it is to the players who know how tough of a situation it might have been.”

Harrison Smith

Two quarters earlier last Sunday, with New Orleans facing a third-and-10 late in the first half, Smith slowly ambled into the box and lined up over tight end Josh Hill. Smith seemed poised to stick with Hill in coverage, so not a single member of the Saints offense acknowledged him as a potential rusher. At the snap, Smith tore into the backfield, blew past running back Mark Ingram, and dropped quarterback Drew Brees for a 10-yard sack. It was a display of Smith’s uncommon gifts; it was also a showcase of how his systemic mastery allows him to win through intuition.

Harrison Smith

Smith’s varied workload in Zimmer’s scheme is critical to the Vikings’ success. Beyond that, it provides constant stimuli for a talent whom teammates believe should be considered for Defensive Player of the Year. “The fact that I get to do everything is what I love the most,” Smith says. “I get to be involved at all levels of the defense. I think if I had to pick one thing, I don’t think it’d be as fun.”

Smith’s presnap antics are the most overt bit of deception in Minnesota’s cloak-and-dagger defense, but it hardly ends there. Few teams are better at masking their intent on a given play. That’s apparent in a variety of ways.

One of Zimmer’s favorite tricks is his trademark double-mug front. The Vikings love to walk both of their inside linebackers into the A gaps (between the center and the guards), thereby setting off alarm bells for the offensive line and opening the door to a host of different possibilities. Both the quarterback and the players responsible for pass protection have to cycle through a series of questions in a matter of seconds. Deciphering which linebacker will blitz and which will bail is complicated by the fact that even they don’t know before the ball is snapped. Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are taught to read the center, whose initial step determines who shoots into the backfield and who drops into coverage. They have never been better at feeding off each other than they were in 2017. “It’s like playing tic-tac-toe,” Alexander says. “You know your move before they know your move. You can play with the offense and the quarterback and mess with their alignments and what they’re trying to do.”

Eric Kendricks

Minnesota’s mug principles are far from simple, but they’re downright quaint compared to some of the coverage designs the Vikings regularly deploy. The way that Zimmer uses pattern-match tactics within his defense makes identifying the coverage nearly impossible for opponents at times. Based on the route distribution on a play, the Vikings can drift between zone and man concepts on a single snap. This is an incredibly intricate approach that’s made possible because of the secondary’s deep familiarity with the scheme and their teammates. “You know what guys like to do, what they’re gonna do, and you just continue to go from there,” Harris says. “Sometimes the stuff we put in is the coaches making adjustments, but sometimes it’s just the players working together within the scheme to disguise it a certain way.”

Zimmer’s myriad modes of deception helped make this one of the best third-down defenses in NFL history. Opponents converted just 25.6 percent of their third downs against the Vikings, the lowest rate in the league by more than six percentage points. On high-leverage downs, Minnesota typically dials up the complexity of its coverage and pressure, and teams have crumbled in the face of both. Zimmer’s defense has always been complex; it’s never been more devastating than it has been this season, because virtually every player who fuels it no longer finds it intimidating. “Time is everything in this defense,” Alexander says. “Once you get that, you can understand it.”

The practical effects of Minnesota’s wrinkles are endless, but their benefits extend beyond just on-field results. As this entire defense has moved from Zimmer 101 to doctoral-level courses, the joy derived from the evolution of the dialogue and scheme has only grown. There’s pleasure to be found in Zimmer’s winding labyrinthe of deceit, and it’s permeated this group.

As the most elaborate defense in existence tries to ensnare Nick Foles and the Eagles in its tangled web this Sunday, it will do it with a smile. “That’s when you really start to have fun with it,” Harris says. “When you’ve been around guys, so you know what they’re able to do and what positions they like to be in. You get to kind of play off of that.”

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