Vikings defenders see value in new philosophy

Even players that don’t ever want to come off the field see the value in Mike Zimmer’s rotational defense with multiple packages.

The Minnesota Vikings got their first look at the rotational system that is a trademark of Mike Zimmer defenses. While the blowout win may have skewed the numbers a bit, the results were pretty obvious. There wasn’t a single defensive player who didn’t see at least some action, whether on the defense or special teams.

Everyone got involved to some extent and 14 players were involved in at least 40 percent of the plays in Week 1 against St. Louis. In all, the defense was on the field for 67 plays. Here is a breakdown of who was on the field and for how much of the game.

Defensive Line – Brian Robison (49 plays/73 percent), Everson Griffen (47/70), Sharrif Floyd (42/63), Linval Joseph (37/55), Tom Johnson (33/49), Corey Wootton (29/43), Shamar Stephen (17/25), Scott Crichton (8/12).

Linebacker – Anthony Barr (59/88), Chad Greenway (59/88), Jasper Brinkley (28/42), Gerald Hodges (14/21), Audie Cole (8/12).

Defensive Backs – Captain Munnerlyn (66/99), Harrison Smith (59/88), Xavier Rhodes (36/54), Josh Robinson (35/52), Jabari Price (28/42), Marcus Sherels (8/12), Antone Exum (8/12).

Robison was one who wasn’t sure about how the new defense would work. While he was on the field more than any other defensive lineman, it was only 73 percent of the plays – about 10 percent less than he averaged the last couple seasons. However, Robison had no problem with the system because he understood the bigger picture of sending fresh players after the quarterback. Jared Allen was on the field for more than 90 percent of plays last year and the slack wasn’t made up by one player, it was made up by four.

“I think the way it rolled Sunday was awesome,” Robison said. “Seventy-three percent is not a lot of plays, but it didn’t feel like I was off the field that much. It was one of those deals where we had a good rotation and things were going well for us. That’s just going to help us in the long run during the season.”

Jasper Brinkley was on the field for less than half the plays Sunday, which speaks to how often Zimmer’s scheme mixes up coverages and how often the Vikings are in a nickel defense. Typically, a middle linebacker in a 4-3 system is on the field about two thirds of the time. Brinkley wasn’t, but he saw the bigger picture. It wasn’t because the Vikings hadn’t played a full 60 minutes yet in the 2014 season, it was because it was intended to work out that way.

“It was a product of Coach Zimmer’s scheme,” Brinkley said. “Like people see, I’m the starting Mike (middle linebacker) in the base and I’m on the field here and there in different packages. Coach has a lot of different packages, so you really can’t rest your hat on one. That’s the great thing about (Zimmer). He brings a lot of different looks.”

Joseph was accustomed to being on the field a lot more when he was with the Giants, but he sees the rationale in running with the hot hand and showing the Rams offense vastly different looks that were difficult to hone in on.

“We just try to keep everybody fresh and learn the game throughout the whole game,” Joseph said. “That’s his philosophy and it worked in Game 1. In Game 2, their quarterback is a different animal. We’ve got to watch film for how we’re going to control everything, but I think you’re going to see a lot of the same this week.”

The ideal component of the defense will be the element of confusion. On one play, Robison may line up as a classic 4-3 defensive end. On the next play, he may slide inside as a defensive tackle. On the next, he may be on his feet as a stand-up pass rusher. It’s that sort of diversity that the Vikings are hoping will create havoc for opposing offenses that will be unaware where the pressure spots reside.

“They have to know who to pick up and who to let go,” Robison said. “You hear a lot of talking among themselves with those linemen. Anything you can do to confuse them and get them wondering what you’re going to do, the better it is for you. The more we can do in moving people around and rotating them up and down the line is going to keep offenses off-balance, which gives us more freedom and pass-rush lanes.”

It isn’t just the defensive linemen that are witnessing a significant change. The secondary is also undergoing a metamorphosis. On some plays, defensive backs will be asked to stick with a receiver on an island because blitz pressure is coming. At other times, they’re the ones blitzing, which is good news for a high-octane hitter like Harrison Smith, who rushed the quarterback four times on Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, and had one sack, one quarterback hit and two quarterback hurries.

“It’s great for me because we’re so active and that’s the style that I like,” Smith said. “There’s a difference between being aggressive and taking a lot of chances that could get you in trouble. We blitz from everywhere, but we have a plan in place if the blitz gets picked up. It’s all about everybody knowing their role in the defense and executing. Keeping guys fresh is part of that, so we’re changing guys in and out, but it’s not like we’re losing anything by doing that. I think it makes us stronger later in the game.”

The Vikings are only one game into the new defensive paradigm shift and the glass-half-full types are saying, “So far, so good.” The glass-half-empty crowd is saying that the win was against a St. Louis team with a career backup QB eventually replaced by a rookie. They’re facing a future Hall of Famer this week.

Whether the momentum the Vikings have built since OTAs last spring will continue through the hardest portion of their schedule over the next month is unknown at this point. But the vested veteran of the defense has been a part of teams that get on a roll early and it carries them like a wave throughout the season, and Chad Greenway sees a similarity with the 2014 Vikings that may be one upset win away against an established team (like New England) from riding that momentum.

“It’s just a confidence thing,” Greenway said. “Once you get confident in what you’re doing, the rest of it seems to fall into place. When you get that confidence, you can get on a roll because you get to the point of trusting the guy next to you knowing that he’s going to do his job and he has that same trust in you. That’s when good things happen.”


John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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