LBs ‘so far ahead’ in Zimmer’s 2nd season

The linebackers are feeling much more comfortable with their assignments in their second season in Mike Zimmer’s defense.

Entering his 10th NFL season, linebacker Chad Greenway isn’t about to get into the prediction game or automatically buy into national media prognostications of the Minnesota Vikings being a playoff team.

But here is what Greenway knows as minicamp approaches this week and after a full season in Mike Zimmer’s defense: the linebackers are much more rote in the defense than they were last year at this time.

“Oh my goodness, the comfort level is so much different than what we had. At this point last year our heads were spinning. We were trying to figure out which way was up,” Greenway said. “I think now we’re so much more comfortable. Still there’s a ton of mistakes being made and that’s just kind of OTA time, but you realize that we’re so far ahead knowing that going into training camp we’re going to be ready to play and make this thing better.”

The Vikings have gone through 10 practices, organized team activities (OTAs) style, and have their three-day minicamp starting Tuesday. After that, they get a five-week break before the rigors of training camp.

The team elected to move away from middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley, leaving an open competition between fourth-year linebacker Audie Cole, rookie Eric Kendricks and a few other longshots. The expectation is that Kendricks, a second-round pick in May’s draft, will be the starter, but either way Cole sees the upgrades that have been made in the linebacker unit.

“I think we’ve got a lot of good skill in our room. I think we’re just right now at this point way ahead of last year,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t really even know what we were doing by now. At least most of the room (is) knowing what to do and young guys, they’re picking it up really quick. We’re looking alright right now.”

To date, Cole has been the middle linebacker most used with the first-team defense while Kendricks has worked his way into the lineup with the nickel defense. Greenway is expected to man the weakside linebacker spot with 2014 first-round draft pick Anthony Barr ably providing a punch at strongside linebacker.

But while the Vikings have improved their athleticism at the position with the drafting of Barr, Kendricks, Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti, Brandon Watts and Edmond Robinson over the last three years, the biggest improvement could be seen because of their familiarity of the returning players with Zimmer’s system.

“We actually know what we’re doing now instead of before we were just trying to learn everything. Now you know what you’re doing so you’re just kind of improving from there,” Cole said. “It’s not so much just figuring out where to stand. Last year, you’re trying to learn everything. Now, everything comes a lot easier and working on different things.”

Neither Cole nor Greenway could say with certainty that Zimmer would implement more complexity to his blitzes or aggressiveness, but to a man each of the linebackers has an increased sense of knowing where they are supposed to be and what Zimmer wants from them.

“(Zimmer) is going to do what he’s going to do regardless and you better catch up. That’s kind of the mentality,” Greenway said. “But the reality is he’s a got an amazing mind when it comes to football. It’s just our job to keep up.

“… It’s going to be interesting to see how everything shakes out. Obviously, as I’ve gotten older you understand that things change and I’m trying to fit into my role, wherever that’s going to be. I’m just open to doing whatever and winning football games and keep that as the most important thing.”

For Greenway, there is another important aspect to his 10th season: staying healthy.

He started the first three games of the 2014 season, but a broken hand and three broken ribs limited his effectiveness before he finally left the field in the fourth quarter of the New Orleans game in Week 3. He missed three games in September and October and missed the season finale with a medial collateral ligament injury, as well.

He takes great pride in playing through pain, as he did in 2013 when he played every game despite a broken wrist. In fact, last year was the first time since 2006 that he had missed any games, and he took exception to a reporter that termed his 2014 injuries as “nagging.”

“They weren’t necessarily nagging. Broken bones aren’t nagging. A hamstring isn’t nagging. But playing with four broken bones in that New Orleans game sort of humbles you a little bit,” Greenway said. “I don’t care how old you are, that’s going to be painful. You have to get over stuff like that and recover. Came back and did some good things, and then the MCL at the end of the year. But I feel great. My body feels great. That’s why I’m saying when I get into training camp I’m going to be ready to compete with anybody. So I’m looking forward to that and see what happens.”

After several different defensive coordinators running a Tampa-2 style of defense, Greenway and the rest of the lienbacker corps enters minicamp in their second season with Zimmer’s more aggressive defense. They are feeling healthier and more comfortable, and that is creating optimism for what 2015 holds.

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