There were several reasons why the Minnesota Vikings made the move to give up next year’s first-round draft pick and a conditional pick in 2018. Primary among them is that the team has built a strong continuity on defense that still offers them hope of reaching their Super Bowl dreams.
Of the 25 players on defense, 21 of them return from last season – including all 11 starters. Of those 21 players, 16 of them have been with the team since Mike Zimmer arrived as the new head coach.
The continuity has made everyone on the defense better and has become the hallmark of the Vikings under Zimmer’s watch.
“It’s huge,” linebacker Anthony Barr said. “With the communication you have on the defense, there aren’t as many mental errors. Guys understand where they fit and know the nuances of the defense.”
For those who have been in the Zimmer system since its inception in Minnesota, they have learned that the key is players working within the system and not freelancing.
Although it can be argued that talented players allowed to jump around a formation reacting to what they’re reading can create big plays, responsibilities in Zimmer’s system are like the different parts of a car engine, working independently, but in conjunction to make the system run like a well-oiled machine as a group.
“It’s all about execution,” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said. “It’s more than just dealing with X’s and O’s. This defense plays off the athleticism of our guys and it holds people accountable. There are plays where your assignment brings the play to you. When that happens, you have to make those plays, whether you’re up front or a linebacker or in the secondary. That was what we’ve learned over the past couple of years in this defense – that we’re a unit, not 11 individual guys going out there trying to make plays. If we play as a unit, the plays come your way and you get those opportunities.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a defensive lineman, a linebacker or a defensive back, the same rules apply. The scheme calls for aggressive play, whether it’s bringing a blitz or showing a blitz and dropping back into coverage. Several of the positions are interchangeable from one play to the next and some players are often left on an island to hold down a greater portion of the field.
Having the familiarity with the system and their teammates makes the system run easier and many of the players believe the 2016 Vikings are still scratching the surface of what they can accomplish as they play another year together and have a wealth of knowledge banked up as to how to read and react to specific game situations.
“It definitely helps when you’ve been working with the same guys in the same system,” safety Andrew Sendejo said. “You’ve been in certain situations before and you can look back on those when you’re game planning. When you’ve been through those experiences before – if the offense comes out with something awkward or weird – you’re all on the same page making adjustments. You know how guys are going to play certain things, so you can already be a step ahead to make the adjustments you need to.”
Part of the increased familiarity is that when players identify something that could potentially be a weakness in the play call or could possibly spring a play open, they’re able to let the others know what they’re seeing. The Vikings have built up such a familiarity that they often don’t need to even speak, because they’re aware of what the player next to them is going to do.
It’s that level of communication – both verbal and non-verbal – that separate good defenses from great ones.
“The communication is the biggest thing,” Johnson said. “The communication you have with everybody knowing what they’re supposed to do and making checks. You look at the guy next to you and you’ve been playing together so long that you can play off them easily – not so much thinking about, just reacting to things. That’s where we’re getting to right now and I think this year you’re going to see a lot of it.”
For those who a relatively new to the defense, they pick up on these cues from their teammates and become incorporated into the system. If that means sliding over a couple of feet to take away a running lane or a throwing lane, the players can read and react off each other with a heads-up as to what is coming.
As a rookie, defensive end Danielle Hunter saw that process take place first hand. Despite playing a part-time role in the defense, Hunter was second on the team in sacks with six and he felt acclimated early in his rookie season – thanks in no small part to the chatter his veteran teammates were using to identify holes in coverage and areas to attack.
“There’s a comfort level out there with so many of the guys because they’ve played together and know what to expect from the guys next to them and the guys behind them in the defense,” Hunter said. “The coaches do a great job of coaching us up and making sure we stick to our assignments and do what we’re supposed to do.”
What may be the scariest part for opposing teams is that, as good as the defense was last year, it can get better – much better.
The focus heading into the season is about the questions on offense as the Vikings move in a different direction following the injury to Teddy Bridgewater. But what should be getting more attention is a Vikings defense that is entering its third year almost completely intact and looking for more in 2016.
“The scheme is evolving,” Johnson said. “Guys have been here three years now. Zim has pretty much told us this is what we’re going to do. Everybody feels comfortable doing it now and it can evolve into something great and allow players to excel at what they do best.”