Even before the Minnesota media was allowed to watch an afternoon of a Mike Zimmer practice in his first minicamp with the Minnesota Vikings, the new head coach admitted that he's spending a lot of time with the defensive backs.
Two hours of practice viewed confirmed that. Zimmer made his way around to different position stations Wednesday afternoon, but when it came to dishing out advice, no one heard it more often from Zimmer than the cornerbacks and safeties.
"I keep straying over to the defense a little bit, you know? I spend a lot of time especially with the defensive backs, because I do feel like I'm an expert in that area," Zimmer said. "I took them in a meeting today and went through tape with the defensive backs. That's what I do. I think I'm fairly good at it, and so I'm going to try to use my abilities as best I can."
There is good reason for Zimmer's primary attention focused on the secondary. Last year, the Vikings finished 31st in total yards allowed per game and 31st in net passing yards allowed per game, as well as 29th in the percentage of passes intercepted.
On the field, he talked with defensive backs about hip movement and eye placement on the receiver, all the way down to toe movement.
"It's little things, but I think they're big things. Like you said, toe movement, you can tell on film sometimes my toe would come up, so that means I'm on my heels, so that just means that I need to put more weight on my toes," safety Harrison Smith said. "Small things like that give you that fraction of a second (quicker) out of your break so that maybe I get that interception instead of a PBU (pass broken up) or a play that I wouldn't make."
Zimmer occasionally makes his way to the offensive positions, but he is putting that portion of the team largely in the experienced hands of coordinator Norv Turner.
But Zimmer's influence goes well beyond the defensive backfield. He is trying to instill a team-first attitude that goes beyond statistics. He is also testing his players, from consistent on-field communication with a second-year cornerback like Xavier Rhodes all the way to one of the most experience veterans on the team these days – defensive end Brian Robison.
"They're testing us. There's no doubt about it. They're definitely testing us. They're putting in a lot of stuff to see how quick we can memorize those types of things, to see how we play on the run. Very fast tempo during practice," Robison said. "Those type of deals that put not only a physical strain on you, but mentally, that's what we need. We need to be able to really push ourselves and see where that threshold is for us."
Robison has said several times this offseason that a coach like Zimmer, who likes to push his players, could be just what the team needs. From a mental and emotional standpoint, that might be true.
But even the basics of a new defensive system are testing some of the best players on that side of the ball.
"You can get complacent and think that you know the system and maybe I don't need to study this tonight, but when there's a change, you need to stay on top of it. It's almost like everybody is a new guy. We're all rookies right now, just trying to learn it and get it down," Smith said.
"It's easy to get rattled thinking about footwork, thinking about, ‘What's my assignment. OK, they motioned, now what do I do?' But you've just got to relax, study your playbook and be a football player."
Players on the other side of the ball may not have Zimmer giving them tips as often, but they are being tested by the complexities of Turner's system.
Veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings said the in-depth nature of the Turner's offense is testing him. From going to a numbers system instead of the verbiage-heavy West Coast offense he experienced for most of his career in Green Bay to simply getting used to dealing with a new head coach, it's almost all new.
"It's almost like being a rookie all over again not knowing what to expect from a personality standpoint," Jennings said. "You get those team meetings that start at 9 but everyone is in their chair at 8:55, just to kind of gauge and feel the new staff. That's going to happen, but I've been impressed with not only what they bring to the table, just being upstairs and the dynamic from the coaches but the coaches-to-player relationship as far as on the field and actually coaching.
"… (Zimmer) is going to be an active participant, very transparent with his guys to a certain extent and the same goes for Coach Turner. I've been highly impressed with the way they approach coaching guys. It does not matter who you are, they're going to get the best out of every player in that locker room."
Zimmer said he is "fairly good" at coaching the defensive backs, so that is where he has spent the most time in his first few days with the Vikings' minicamp. But he fully admits to spending more time with the defense.
"It's a totally different atmosphere than where it was last year," Robison said. "Guys are yelling. I actually told (defensive coordinator George) Edwards today, I said, ‘I feel like when I'm in my stance, I should yell something because everybody else is yelling something.' It's definitely a different attitude. It's one of those deals where you can obviously see where we can be a great team because of the way that they're coaching us, the way that they're really showing a lot of emotion on the field. It's great to be a part of."
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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