Bring on the blitz.
For all the acclaim Mike Zimmer received for his defensive acumen with the Cincinnati Bengals, one particular area of expertise stood out to his son Adam in one season working under his father – Mike's ability to put together a blitz package that other observers have ranked among the best in the NFL.
"He's got one of the best blitz packages in the league," Adam Zimmer said of his father. "That's the main thing I was happy I was with him for the year that I was because I got to learn how good he was at that, with his pressure package."
Adam Zimmer spent four years with the New Orleans Saints, learning under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in 2009, three more with the Kansas City Chief (with Romeo Crennel as the defensive coordinator) and then last year with the Bengals. He is expected to be named part of the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coaching staff in the next week under first-time head coach Mike Zimmer.
Last year, the Bengals finished with the third-ranked defense overall, fifth against both the rush and the pass. The key to an effective blitz package, according to Adam, is film study on the opponent and getting to know their tendencies.
"You've got to break down the opponent's protections. We did that more than with any team I've been with," Adam said of his experience last year with the Bengals. "You really study how they are protecting and how to attack it and where their weakness is. He does a great job."
One of Mike Zimmer's linebackers with the Dallas Cowboys in 2005 can attest to his dedication to preparation. Scott Fujita observed Zimmer studying up for an opponent in 2005 and calling the plays the opponent would be running on film before the snap. Fujita, as he wrote for FOXSports.com, believed it might just be a case of Zimmer memorizing a certain game, but Zimmer let Fujita pick any game for that opponent and saw the then-defensive coordinator nail the offensive play calls with about 90 percent accuracy.
"I felt like I had a front-row seat to his game-day thought process, as he was essentially thinking out loud," Fujita wrote for FOXSports.com. "And it wasn't the defensive calls he was making that I found overly impressive. Anyone who ‘knows' football can run through a call sheet and match it up with the corresponding game situation. But what I found uncanny was his ability to correctly and specifically predict what each offensive play would be, one after another."
Zimmer downplayed the importance of a specific scheme – a 4-3 defensive front versus 3-4 – in his opening session with reporters after being hired by the Vikings. In his world of specialization and detail, he kept his thought process basic for public consumption.
"It really does not matter if it's a 3-4 or 4-3. As far as my philosophy, I want to stop the run and I want to hit the quarterback," he said. "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."
The Bengals ranked fourth in Pro Football Focus' grading of pass coverage despite being 20th in pass rush. One of the reasons the Bengals' pass rush suffered was because they lost star defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a torn anterior cruciate ligament on Oct. 31. He played less than half the defensive snaps and was far and away their highest graded pass rusher, according to PFF.
Interestingly, Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who led the NFL in tackles, rushed the passer the same percentage of time as the Vikings' Chad Greenway – both at 13.2 percent. Each of them had two sacks, but Burfict was a little better at getting pressure that didn't result in a sack. He was credited with five quarterback hits and nine hurries by PFF. Greenway had four hits and six hurries, but he played most of the season with a fractured wrist.
Burfict ranked eighth in pass rush productivity among 4-3 outside linebackers and Greenway was 17th.
As for inside linebackers, Erin Henderson ranked sixth in pass rush productivity with three sacks, two quarterback hits and seven hurries.
Early indications are that the Vikings likely will run a 4-3 defense but mix in some 3-4 looks. Brian Robison, a defensive end in his seven seasons with the Vikings, is willing to play end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he, too, mentioned the Bengals' pressure package after Zimmer was hired away from Cincinnati.
"They ran a 4-3 but they threw a lot of wrinkles in there with blitz packages and stuff like that," Robison said. "Hopefully we can do that same thing this year and get back to where we used to be as a defense."
Zimmer's son, Adam, immediately referenced his father's film study when asked what he learned last year as an assistant coach in Cincinnati.
"I learned a lot from him just sitting and watching games – what did you do here, what did you do here?" Adam said.
But when it came to a general description of his father's defensive philosophy, it turned from the academics of a coach's office to the aggressiveness on the football field.
"I think it's an attacking style," Adam said. "First and foremost, you've got to stop the run and get them to third-and-long.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Zimmer respected for blitz packages
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