At his introductory press conference, new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer called himself "an observer" and "a fixer."
He could be a changer, too.
The Vikings have run the Tampa-2 zone as their base defense since Brad Childress was hired in 2006 and brought Mike Tomlin in as his defensive coordinator from Tampa Bay. Tomlin lasted only one year before he was hired as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was succeeded by Leslie Frazier with his Tony Dungy influence in the Tampa-2.
With Zimmer taking the head-coaching reins from Frazier (who in the NFL circle of life is now in Tampa Bay), the Vikings' defensive scheme hasn't been publicly proclaimed yet and might not be for several weeks or months.
"It doesn't matter what you do, honestly. It doesn't matter what system you run," Zimmer said. "Whether it's West Coast, run-and-shoot, the 4-3 or the 3-4, it's how you do it – everybody speaking the same language and working together. That's what I learned."
The Vikings haven't even announced the coordinators that everyone knows they hired weeks ago – Norv Turner on offense and George Edwards on defense – but Zimmer admitted that defense is his "baby," and he has a wealth of knowledge and experience to incorporate his own scheme in Minnesota.
If he has the Vikings making the conversion from the 4-3 zone defense to a 3-4 base defense, he has at least one willing player in defensive end Brian Robison.
"(Zimmer) is one of those guys that ran pretty much every defense that you could think of. For a guy like me, I'm open arms to it. I'm open arms to whatever," Robison said. "I'm kind of hoping you take his background and you put it all together here in Minnesota because I wouldn't mind playing the outside guy on a 3-4 defense. Obviously I felt like I proved myself as a 4-3 defensive end. Hopefuly we're able to mix it up and be able to get after some guys this year."
By "outside guy," Robison was referring to the linebacker that often lines up on the line of scrimmage and he cited DeMarcus Ware and LaMarr Woodley as examples.
That could mean Robison would occasionally drop into coverage. He's done that before with the Vikings' 4-3 defense, but if he were asked to play the outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, it would become a more common practice for him.
"Absolutely. We kind of do it in the 4-3 defense anyway. We probably don't do it as much as a 3-4 outside guy. I'm comfortable doing that," he said. "I've played linebacker before and obviously it's been a while since I played linebacker. I kind of understand coverages and things like that. I'm definitely open to it."
If the Vikings were going to make the switch to a 3-4 defense, now is probably the best time to do it. They have three of their better defensive linemen – Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Everson Griffen – scheduled to be free agents, leaving Robison and Letroy Guion as the only starters on the line still under contract for 2014.
Robison has played all but his first year in the NFL with Allen. He has played all seven of his seasons with Williams.
"Obviously we want those guys back, being that we've been together so long, but the likelihood of it happening isn't very strong," Robison said. "Obviously it comes down to what coach thinks and management. At this point in time, it definitely leaves your options open. Now that you're able to weigh the good and the bad of switching as well as staying the same, you sit there and kind of look at our roster and you've got a lot of open spots on our defense. That leaves the option open because now you can sit here and say, ‘We can sign these guys to get this certain defense up and running or we sign the same guys and keep doing what we've been doing.'"
Robison was signed to a four-extension in October that could be worth $28 million. That ensures his place on the team in 2014 and beyond. But beyond him and Sharrif Floyd there aren't many guarantees long-term on the defensive line.
The Vikings finished the 2013 season with the 31st-ranked defense, including 31st against the pass. Zimmer's defensive background and willingness to tailor the plan to the personnel he has should help.
"I want to fit our scheme to the players, to the best of their abilities," Zimmer said. "… As far as my philosophy, I want to stop the run and I want to hit the quarterback. So, however that is, if we've got to blitz I think we have a great blitz package. But I want to be fundamentally sound in what we do. There's teams that can go out there and make a lot of big plays, but they're not fundamentally sound. And then when the game gets on the line, they don't perform in the crucial situations of the game."
Whether intended or not, that last sentence encapsulated the Vikings' 2013 season with five games in which they surrendered a lead in the final 2 minutes, causing four losses and one tie. The defenders appeared to grow weary of the questioning and unable to find the answer to the question of "why" their late-game collapses occurred.
Were the Vikings too predictable with their Tampa-2 base defense?
"You could say that, but bottom line is we had the same defense for years and we were top of the league in run and it's not like we were running a new defense," Robison said. "That's a defense that's been around for a long time. So, bottom line, as players we've just got to make plays when we have the opportunity to make them. I think that was a big part of it."
So if a change in scheme is gushing down the pipeline – whether that's implementing a 3-4, a different version of a 4-3 or the more likely option of some sort of hybrid – Robison is ready and willing to make the move.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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