The differences are stark in the defenses employed by the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots.
First, the Patriots run a base 3-4 defense with big nose tackle Vince Wilfork the mainstay in the middle. The Vikings run a 4-3 scheme with free-agent signee Linval Joseph the latest to try to replace Pat Williams as a run-stuffing presence.
Bill Belichick has been New England’s head coach for 14 years. Mike Zimmer, another defensive-minded man, is in his inaugural season as a head coach.
“We’re so far in the infancy stages of what we’re trying to do in this program that we want to go out and perform well each and every week,” Zimmer said. “This is the process that we’re trying to build here.”
But the matchup between the rookie Zimmer and Super Bowl-winning Belichick is an interesting one.
So far, Zimmer has gotten off to a good start with the Vikings, going 4-0 in the preseason and getting the Vikings’ first road win since 2012. Belichick and the Patriot lost their first opener in 10 years, but they have only lost back-to-back road games 10 times under Belichick.
Then there is Zimmer’s record against the Patriots. He has faced them three times as a defensive coordinator – twice with the Cincinnati Bengals, a 38-24 loss in 2010 and a 13-6 win last year, and then once when he was with the Dallas Cowboys, a 12-0 loss.
“Every game is so different. The situations are different, the players are different, the score of the game dictates a lot of these things, field position, tendencies that you have yourself, tendencies that you have on them,” Zimmer said. “Obviously the quarterback that you play and obviously what they do when they get blitzed. They’re a fantastic screen team with all of their guys.”
Last year’s win, Zimmer’s first win against the Patriots, came in adverse conditions. Zimmer said it rained “like crazy” the last minute of the game. Sunday’s forecast against the Patriots and Tom Brady calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 66 degrees.
Zimmer said he isn’t trying to outsmart Belichick or any coach he faces. It’s more about sticking with what works with the players he is coaching.
“I don’t consider it a personal challenge,” Zimmer said when asked about facing Belichick. “It’s still about the guys on the field and how they play. I totally respect everything that he’s done in his career, but I’m just trying to get our guys ready to play.
“I’m really not that smart anyways. We focus on our guys, what we think is the best thing to do each week. It’s not, obviously it’s a great challenge against not only those two guys (Brady and Belichick), but they’ve got a lot of good players too.”
Zimmer said there was little celebration over his first win as a head coach, even though he got the game ball from Vikings owner Zygi Wilf in the locker room after the game and a Gatorade bath from his starting receivers on the field as the game concluded. The Patriots consumed Zimmer’s attention just hours after his win against the Rams.
Having Matt Cassel as his quarterback may help since he spent the first three years of his career with the Patriots learning under Belichick and Brady before taking over for an injured Brady in Cassel’s fourth season there. But, as Cassel pointed out, much has changed with the Patriots’ schemes since he was last there in 2008.
“It’s been six years,” he said. “Schemes change. They’re obviously doing some different stuff now. They’re doing a lot more no-huddle than what they (used to) do and, again, it’s sometimes personnel based. We were kind of three-wide receiver, four-wide receiver sets when I was there. They have some great tight ends there, as well. So there’s really not a ton that I can offer them at this point.”
Cassel said the Patriots bring a “fair amount” of blitzes on defense, and Zimmer said the Patriots “very well could” spread the Vikings defense out with three- and four-receiver sets.
“One time they come out they’ll try to establish the run and really pound it; other days they’ll want to come out and spread it,” Zimmer said. “We’re preparing for a lot of different scenarios.”
But Zimmer is trying to earn his stripes as a head coach. A win against Belichick in Zimmer’s first season would garner even more respect than he has already.
“Coach Zimmer does an excellent job and has done a great job with that program in Minnesota and the production they’ve had in the time he’s been there,” Belichick said. “He has a good scheme, the players play well, don’t make mistakes, play hard and he’s got a lot of good players.”
And he has his sights set on another upset, this time hoping it comes against one the league’s most successful coaches.
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Zimmer v. Belichick: Not a personal challenge
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