Mike Zimmer has maintained for more than a month that his Minnesota Vikings probably wouldn’t be practicing against the Cincinnati Bengals this week if he didn’t have such familiarity with Marvin Lewis.
Zimmer worked as Lewis’ defensive coordinator from 2008-13 and, while Zimmer had his own defensive scheme, he learned how Lewis engendered respect.
“I got a chance to see how Marvin does things, how he treats people, the way he earns respect,” Zimmer said. “When I left Atlanta - I was there for three-quarters of a year or whatever - but, coming here and being able to resurrect my career a little bit, I think that helped a lot, being able to get some good players in here.”
Zimmer’s Vikings will be facing some of those good players with practices on Wednesday afternoon in full pads and Thursday morning in shoulder pads before the two teams play each other in their first preseason game.
The way they conduct practices is similar, which helped in producing a script that could benefit each team in preparation for the regular season and developing younger players.
“You know his foundation is big, the way he treats players, the way he treats people. Marvin has got a great heart, and he’s great for the city, so a lot of those things really carried over with me,” Zimmer said.
No doubt it has.
The Bengals made the playoffs in four of the six seasons he was there and he helped turn the Bengals defense into a respected, perhaps feared, unit, similar to what he is building in Minnesota. The Cincinnati defense ranked in the NFL’s top 10 in four of Zimmer’s six seasons there, and players there still espouse an immense respect for him.
The familiarity and respect is so deep that Zimmer even invited the Bengals coaches to his ranch in nearby Kentucky for a barbeque on Thursday evening.
Of course, with Zimmer, there is the serious side, too. He wouldn’t be holding joint practices if he didn’t believe it would benefit his team.
“I knew that the respect factor for both teams would be here, and I anticipate that we’ll get a lot of good work,” he said. “Usually the day before a preseason game you don’t get any work done. We’re going to get some extra work that way. So, I thought that was good. If it was some other team, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
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The scheme remains familiar.
Zimmer’s defense in Minnesota is known for showing – and sometimes bringing – pressure up the middle. Most of the time that is shown by his linebackers “mugging” the A gaps on the offensive line, but it’s not an overwhelming amount of blitzes.
Cincinnati continues to try to exploit offensive line protections under Zimmer’s replacement, Paul Guenther.
“We started (with) some of the principles we had when I was in Dallas,” Zimmer said. “We just kind of carried them over, and we tried to figure out ways that we could get great pressure up the middle. Then from there, it was just - once we started looking at things and looking at more, and it was like ‘OK, how can we do this? What can we do different?’”
Vikings players have talked over the last week about the familiarity they will see in the Bengals defense. Some concepts remain similar, even if the personnel running those schemes is different.
For Zimmer, it’s usually about football first and foremost. But the next three days will surely bring back memories, as well.
“The fans were always great to me here,” he said. “I think it’s a tremendous city. I’m building a house over there in Kentucky. There are a lot of memories and things like that, but I’m not really a nostalgic guy.”