Players, fans and even the media can complain about having four preseason games – I’ll save my whine for another time – but the Minnesota Vikings’ first-team defense showed there is plenty to be gained during the run-up to the regular season.
Perhaps it is impossible for human nature to give full effort when the games don’t count, or maybe some of the mistakes made by the Vikings on Friday night against the Cincinnati Bengals were the result of several missing starters. Or, perhaps, expectations for this defense are too high.
But, I doubt they are higher than Mike Zimmer’s.
“We were pretty awful,” Zimmer told sideline analyst Greg Coleman during halftime of Friday night’s 17-16 win.
Those comments came after the Vikings were overpowered repeatedly on the Bengals’ second drive before finally stiffening up and stuffing up a fourth-and-1 run.
If the Vikings are going to live up to most expectations on defense, they will have to do better with the basics – giving up 132 yards in the first two drives is ridiculous for the talent this defense has. And executing the basics better will allow Zimmer to incorporate the next level of his scheme.
Fans in the stands at training camp that were paying close attention likely noticed some of the wrinkles. In fact, they happened at every level.
There were defensive linemen, most notably Brian Robison, dropping back in coverage and picking off a pass. It’s been done before with Robison, but not in the same way.
“Tremendously different. Just like any veteran that is moving on in his career is finding ways to help the football team win and he’s done that,” veteran linebacker Chad Greenway said of Robison’s versatility. “He’s proven to be a consistent performer on the edge, but we want to win. We want to win football games. That’s what it’s all about and we just want to get to a point where we can scheme to the point where we’re going to have success.”
If Friday’s execution was an indication, they may not be at that point yet. But they should be.
While the youth of the defense has been touted, this is mostly an experienced crew in Zimmer’s scheme. Middle linebacker Eric Kendricks is the only starter not going into his third season of the Zim master’s scheme (Kendricks was held out Friday).
“It’s (Zimmer’s) third year. If you ain’t got the basics down by now you’re never going to get it,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said at training camp. “It’s the third year in this defense and we’re just trying to take it to another level. Guys show different looks and we know teams getting in our schemes and know what we like to do so we try to show different looks and go out there and switch it up a little bit.”
Certainly you would expect Zimmer to keep offenses guessing and use more than just Robison in that role, but the next-level wrinkles are happening at every level.
At times, four linebackers are in the game. At times, only one safety is there.
The idea? Confusion beyond Zimmer’s hailed double-A-gap pressure.
“I’m not trying to give it away,” said Munnerlyn, one of those that could find a different role at times. “… It’s kind of a next-level thing, I guess, and trying to show different looks.”
Munnerlyn said the wrinkles aren’t much different than what some other teams have used, including the Arizona Cardinals and the Bengals, but keeping the opponent guessing is the key. Having different, sometimes non-traditional personnel, on the field at the same time is the start of that.
If that means Munnerlyn is moved into different spots on the field, he’s all for it. Anything to get him on the field more, in his opinion, is a good thing.
“I can do it. I’m a guy that feels like I can do anything, especially in this defense where I’m more comfortable,” he said. “It’s not like my first year here. I’m a veteran that understands football and understands things I need to get the job done.”
One of the reasons the Vikings drafted Anthony Barr when most draft analysts felt he was only a fit for a 3-4 defense is because of his versatility. After only two years with Zimmer, Barr might be the most important piece of the defense because of all he can do at a high level.
He’s one of the team’s better pass rushers when brought on the blitz. He has the range to cover well and attack runners.
“Versatility is so crucial in our defense,” Greenway said when asked about Barr. “I think even more so than Anthony is Brian Robison and where we’re moving him and really a lot of guys. Flexibility in our own scheme is huge, the ability to move guys around. We get schemed within our own scheme from our own offense and that’s good for us to see those types of things. But Anthony’s versatility is what makes him great and I think his willingness to do what it takes and his great mental approach is huge.”
The wrinkles might not be new to Zimmer’s scheme, but he could be at a point where he is finally comfortable implementing it in his third season in Minnesota.
It may look confusing, but Zimmer insists his defense isn’t complicated, saying it’s not like a chemistry class.
Still, adding wrinkles and Zimmer’s attention to detail could be why some high-round draft picks don’t start immediately. Kendricks could turn into one of the better middle linebackers in the NFL, but he didn’t start for the first month of his rookie season. Trae Waynes appears to have all the tools needed to be a high-level cornerback, but at this early point in his second season he isn’t yet a full-time starter.
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Greenway indicated youth is also a key, saying he probably couldn’t do everything being asked of his younger linebacker teammates.
So when will Vikings fans see the wrinkles put in action? The beauty of it is you can’t be sure when.
“It’s situational and we’re going to use it all over the field, but it’s just what you saw,” Greenway said. “We want to give teams different looks in tough spots.”
The timing appears to be right. Zimmer isn’t likely to show his hand in the preseason, but eventually he’ll find the right time and the right offense to unleash the next level of his scheme.