Sunday slant: Finally, the thud of pads

It’s finally here. The pads are going on and not scheduled to come off anytime soon in Mankato. It’s time for the players to get physical and the inner football geek in fans to be entertained. Thank goodness, physical football is back.

Players have gone through the conditioning program, the minicamps, the organized team activities. They’ve endured the introductions, the installations and the film sessions.

They’ve even survived a warm-weather practice under new head coach Mike Zimmer. But, Sunday, they will experience a first. Finally, the pads go Sunday for the first time all year after dozens of practices and plenty of speculation about how much improved the Minnesota Vikings defense will be with free-agent and draft additions.

But without the clap of the helmets and the jarring thud of shoulder pads meeting, football just isn’t the same. That changes Sunday.

Preseason is still a dozen days away, but Sunday could bring out the best in aggressiveness for Vikings defenders looking to add the physical element to the mental preparation that more than two dozen practices since April have given them.

Or it could just be a mess.

“When the pads come on, it always seems like a real cluster because you haven’t been in pads forever,” said outside linebacker Audie Cole, who currently holds a starting spot on the strong side. “Everybody is just flying around trying to hit each other and all that. It might be a little bit of a cluster, but as you go you’re going to adjust and it’s just going to become second nature again.”

Defensive coordinator George Edwards said the “dog days” of training camp are tough. In reality, the players haven’t reached that point yet. The first two days of training camp were about refreshing what they had learned in April, May and June. Sunday is supposed to the holy day, but it will be interesting to see if the hitting brings out the “holy #&@#$&*!!” in Zimmer, a coach who can be highly intense at times on the field and highly intelligent in the film room.

Like all head coaches, he wants his players to be smart when the hitting starts Sunday afternoon. There won’t be tackling to the ground and his sermon has to do with avoiding cheap shots on a teammate.

“You have to be careful because you’re going against your own guys. We have to be smart (Sunday),” he said. “We can’t be just reckless and crazy. We just need to be physical, but be smart. We’ve been being smart actually since about the second day in (spring practices), but we don’t get many guys on the ground, we stay on our feet. We practice the correct way; we don’t take cheap shots.”

Even so, Zimmer will want to see some physicality while players are trying to put the techniques they have learned over the last four months into action. This will be the time to get myopic about pad level, knee bends, hip-flipping and hand placement.

For the inner football rube, this is the start of seeing what kind of defenders Zimmer has to mold.

“The big thing is Coach Zimmer emphasizes tackling. You’ve got to be able to get on and off blocks and make tackles and limit the gain after first contact, limit the gain after they do catch the first ball,” Edwards said. “From that aspect of it, those are the things that we’re emphasizing.

“The dog days of camp are tough. You’ve got to be mentally, emotionally and physically tough to be able to handle the workload that we’re getting ready to go through. We like the competition. We like the guys that we’ve got and we know it will work itself out in the end. We’re just glad to have those guys that we know will be competing every day.”

Of course, it will be entertaining to see the “Hard Knocks” side of Zimmer emerges even more than it did Saturday when lasered a not-fit-family phrase at one of his defenders in front of the training camp crowd. But it goes way beyond the violent Vikings ways.

As much as the physicality of the game brings fans to their feet and knocks players off their feet, there is a method to the assessments. By all accounts, Zimmer doesn’t get involved in other aspects of the organization beyond the coaching realm. He’s a throwback that loves defense and diagnosing how to stop an offense cold in its tracks.

In order to do that, he needs to see what his defenders have. Sunday and every other day the Vikings wear the pads – they are scheduled to have them on each of the next dozen days they are practicing at training camp – is a big day for players like Anthony Barr, Linval Joseph, Sharrif Floyd and numerous other defenders that have to show they were worth their draft status or free-agent contracts.

Barr is trying to win a starting spot, the one that Cole currently has.

“He’s rushing good off the edge. Obviously (Sunday) with the pads will help him a little bit with using his arms and pad level and things like that,” Zimmer said of Barr. “That’ll be big for him.”

Floyd needs to build off a good day Saturday, when he used his quickness to disrupt the passer and running lanes, and prove that more individualized coaching has helped him disengage from blockers. Joseph’s value to the defense will start to come into play if he can anchor in against the double teams with his impressively strong frame at nose tackle.

“It’s critical. Those are the guys that don’t get a lot of credit, but I’ll tell you what, being inside and taking on blocks, that job is as important as any,” Edwards said. “Everything is tied together and it starts right there with him. If you can get a lot of movement on the nose, that means they’re getting up on those linebackers pretty quick. So having a nose guard that can sit in there and battle and move his feet, when they start running sideways, it’s critical. That’s a critical position for us.”

After months of speculation that the combination of Zimmer’s more diverse scheme and adding talent to the defense will bring the defense back to respectability, it’s time to see how they perform with pads.

For the football geeks, all the previous viewings of the defense were simply a tease. This is the beginning of putting the preparation into practice. This is when the fun really begins for the fans – and for some of the players, too.

It’s proving time with the pads.

“It’s fun. It’s a good time,” Cole said. “When you’re not in pads, you really can’t do your job. You can’t really do what you’re supposed to do. You’ve got to go up and do different things when you have the pads on.

“When you have the pads, there’s no more excuses.”

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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