Two years is not enough.
While Mike Zimmer is known for his attention to detail on defense, and especially in the techniques with the defensive backs, two years with the Minnesota Vikings coach still has his defensive backs learning from the former secondary coach and defensive coordinator.
When Zimmer took over as head coach of the Vikings in 2014, his first practices often involved extensive sessions with Zimmer watching over the cornerbacks and safeties and offering step-by-step advice. It was the most technique and position-specific coaching a Vikings coach had doled out in decades.
Perhaps no one drew Zimmer’s attention more than Xavier Rhodes, at the time a promising cornerback who was trying to make the transition from one set of coaches to another. With a little more than a year of tutelage from Zimmer and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, Rhodes had earned the trust of coaches enough last year to have him shadow some of the NFC North’s best receivers.
“Experience,” Rhodes answered when asked during the start of the Vikings’ offseason program how he is a better cornerback now. “Being able to learn from my mistakes and take the coaching when different coaches came.”
Still, Rhodes believes he and the defense can be better in Zimmer’s third year at the helm than they were in his second year, which saw quite a bit of improvement.
“Obviously you can be better. The goal is No. 1,” Rhodes said. “It’s a lot of improvement we need to work on, a lot of things we need to work on as a defense. We’re working toward that this year and being the No. 1 defense in the NFL.”
Harrison Smith is considered one of the best safeties in the NFL and should be getting paid like it sometime in the coming months if he and the team can agree on a contract extension.
But even Smith admits there is plenty left to learn from the head coach some have tabbed as “the cornerback whisperer.”
“Tons. He’s been around the game for so long and been successful for so long,” Smith said. “And not just the defensive guys, too. It’s the offensive guys, too, because he can teach them how he attacks them and I think that helps them on Sundays as well, and they’ve also got Norv (Turner). Between those guys and the rest of the staff, there’s no amount of time where we’re going to get it all, but you just try to take as much as we can.”
Rhodes said Zimmer has taught him to stop being so aggressive with receivers past five yards.
Last year, Rhodes still had 11 penalties that were either defensive holding (seven) or pass interference (four). In 2014, he also had 11 penalties that were defensive holding, pass interference or illegal contact, but last year his responsibilities were increased.
Another year of experience should help him, just like it helps any younger defensive back.
“I think everybody is a lot different from years ago, but definitely I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here,” Smith said. “I’m thankful to be around a lot of good players and a lot of good coaches. I couldn’t have been luckier to be drafted to a better place.”
In 2015, the Vikings ranked 12th in passing yards per game allowed, 13th in passing yards per play and fifth in points per game allowed. In 2014, Zimmer’s first season, they were seventh, 16th and 11th in those categories, respectively. However, before Zimmer’s arrival, they were 31st, 23rd and last.
Yet, the defensive players are hardly satisfied with being in the top half of the NFL’s defenses. If they aren’t No. 1, they at least want to be top-five.
“There’s a lot of things. Just speaking for the defense, we were pretty bad in two-minute situations last year so that’s one specific area that we definitely need to work on is not letting teams score in two-minute,” Smith said.
The improvement process has already started by reviewing in film sessions what they did well and, perhaps more importantly, where they need to improve most. And they realize the momentum won’t continue unless they continue to work at it and aspire to higher goals.
“That’s our plan. You don’t get to start where you left off. You’ve got to start kind of from the ground up every year,” Smith said. “A lot of guys have things to build on, especially being around Zim for a few years now. We still can’t get complacent and say, ‘We were pretty good last year. We’ll just get better from there.’ We’ll start from the ground up.”