The Minnesota Vikings are moving on to the next stage of their defensive progression: the versatility.
Head coach Mike Zimmer, who has been busy installing his defensive scheme throughout the offseason and training camp, said last week that the defensive installation of new concepts was nearly complete. On Tuesday, he confirmed that he has learned enough about his defenders to see where their strengths and weakness lie and move onto the next phase: using his most versatile players in a variety of ways.
That transition just started in the last week.
“It’s great to disguise and fool a quarterback and all those things, but if you don’t have the fundamentals down and the base techniques down, then all that stuff really doesn’t matter because you can’t do it every single play,” Zimmer said. “I told our guys when I first got here, ‘I want you to line up here. I want you doing this. I want you doing it this way.’ And then once I feel like we have the fundamentals down and the techniques down, then we can start worrying about tricking somebody else or disguising.”
Having the right personnel to do that is the key. Zimmer doesn’t want to put a player in a position where he isn’t likely to succeed. That’s a lesson he said he learned early in his tenure as the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys.
Three players in particular have proven they have the versatility to be used in different ways. Brian Robison can play defensive end, defensive tackle and even linebacker. The same is true with the other starting defensive end, Everson Griffen. Rookie Anthony Barr is being used as a linebacker and pass-rushing end.
Last week at the end of training camp, Robison started getting some practice with the linebackers. He isn’t sure if and how much that will be employed during a game, but it is at least a possibility.
“As a defensive end, you want to rush from the edge, but bottom line is it creates mismatches,” Robison said of playing multiple positions on defense. “If you can create a mismatch, it allows your team more of a chance to win. Bottom line is I’m about winning games around here. If I’ve got be inside or outside or standing up, it doesn’t matter what I’ve got to do.
“They can’t key in on one guy. If you’ve got one guy that you need to take care of, you can’t key in on him. You don’t know where he’s going to be. Whether it’s myself, whether it’s Everson, whether it’s Barr, you’re not going to know where those rushers are coming from because you might be on the right side one time, might be on the left side one time, might be inside one time, might be blitzing from the back end. You just never know where they’re going to be.”
Robison was playing inside at defensive tackle next to Everson Griffen, who was rushing from the end spot, on a critical third-down play last Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals. The defensive tackles got pressure up the middle and flushed quarterback Drew Stanton out of the pocket as Griffen gave chase and eventually hit him as the quarterback released an incomplete third-down pass.
Barr, who Robison called “a physical freak of nature,” was drafted for just that sort of versatility. His forte is rushing the passer from the linebacker spot, but he has also gotten plenty of work rushing from the defensive end spot in certain situations. He leads the Vikings with 1½ sacks in two preseason games, with a big sack to end the first half of Saturday’s 30-28 win over the Cardinals.
Robison said Barr is always looking for advice and trying to learn from the veteran pass rushers on the team, as well as the defensive line coaches.
“He’s not used to having his hand in the dirt, but his willingness to learn is refreshing to see,” Robison said. “… He’s got such raw talent with just his speed and stuff, if he starts learning some of the hand techniques and things like that, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
“That’s the thing that he’s learning right now are a lot of the hand techniques and counter moves. Whether it be going back to power or something like that because he’s big enough to use that as well. There will come a time where guys start seeing that he’s a speed rusher and they start sitting, now if he has an element where he can come back and bull a guy, now you’ve got problems. That’s what he’s learning right now and I think he’s going to be a heck of a force for us.”
Zimmer said his options within the defense are based on the available personnel, but he doesn’t want to ask a player to do something he isn’t good at. But Griffen has noticed a freedom in the coaching, too.
“We just play,” he said. “They let you play; let you go.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
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