He didn’t get there by letting mistakes slide – either by going unnoticed or certainly not by declining to point them out to his players in front of the rest of the team. When he was hired in January 2014, Zimmer wasn’t sure he agreed with a description of him as “blunt,” but to hear is his defensive players describe a film session with him, it seems that is an apt descriptor.
“It’s tough, but at the same time you’ll be sitting there like, ‘Man, I hope he don’t call me out,’” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of those weekly film sessions. “But at the same time it makes us better as people and better as a football team and better as a team in general. We’re a family, and if something’s not going right we’re talking to each other as a family. It’s definitely a little scary, but at the same time it’s well worth it.”
The reward of weekday criticism and correction comes in the rejoicing of weekend victories.
Vikings players don’t seem to mind Zimmer’s direct, honest and perhaps blunt approach. It’s what got him to this point and it is part of what has helped that defense ascend from the last-ranked team in points allowed and 31st-ranked in yards allowed in 2013 – the year before Zimmer took over – to the top-ranked team in points allowed and second-ranked in yards allowed.
Now one spot away from the top ranking in the NFL, Zimmer’s defense didn’t get to that point by letting mistakes slide during film review with the players.
“It’s not that you dread it. He’s going to be honest with you and you respect the honesty,” defensive end Justin Trattou said. “If you do good, you do good. If you do bad, you do bad. There’s no grey area. There’s no coddling, that’s for sure.”
Probably no defender knows that more than Munnerlyn. He bucked the system a bit in his first season under Zimmer in 2014 and was called out privately and publicly for it. In 2015, he abided by the team concept and flourished, ending the season by appointing himself the best nickel cornerback in the league.
That might be debatable, and Zimmer isn’t likely to heap that sort of individual praise on Munnerlyn … or declare any of his players “the best.” No, in Zimmer’s film-intense and on-point precision world, there is always room for improvement.
“Oh, no, he’s going to call you out. If he doesn’t like something he’s going to call you out,” said Munnerlyn, who admitted he was called out much more often in 2014. “He don’t care who you are. You can be anybody; he’s going to call you out.”
Trattou said “that’s a fact” – nobody is beyond being called out in front of their peers during film sessions in a team meeting room lined with signs reminding players of Zimmer’s principles.
“I feel like if it was any player, they don’t want to look at the film and see them messing up,” defensive tackle Shamar Stephen said. “I feel like anybody wouldn’t want to see them mess up, but it’s important to know what mistakes you made and get them corrected, especially for our defense and our scheme.
“Zim is just a straight-up coach and will tell you like it is and what you need to get it fixed and then you have to fix it.”
The Vikings went from last in points allowed before Zimmer arrived to 11th his first season to fifth last year to their top ranking so far this year. They went from 31st in yards allowed in 2013 to 14th in Zimmer’s first season to 13th last year to second this year.
“If you stay the same, other teams are going to come and pass you up, so for us it’s just business as usual,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “Bring your own lunch pail to work and try to put our right foot forward to try to get better each and every day.”
That’s essentially Zimmer’s mantra. Review, correct and improve.
So far, there has been improvement with his defense each year in Minnesota. For current players, the mantra of former head coach Brad Childress applies now more than ever: “Don’t be the guy.” Don’t be the guy that makes the mistake.
“I think it’s definitely an experience where you know the guy is very passionate about what he’s doing and takes pride in everything that comes out of his mouth,” Trattou said of Zimmer. “It’s definitely shown out on the field for us.”
- Zimmer loves to show the blitz on nearly every passing situation, but doesn’t always bring it. Figuring out if and where the blitz is coming will be the task for Eagles rookie QB Carson Wentz, who is making his sixth start in the NFL. “Preparation is really the key to everything you do at this level of football. Everything gets really complicated, and just your film study and understanding situational football,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson about Wentz handling the blitz. “That’s an area he’s continuing to grow in or situations that are presented each week. He studies the blitz tape and having a guy like Chase Daniel here kind of taking him under the wings and just showing him how to prepare, how to study, what to look for, to go through the whole blitz reel has given him what he needs on Sundays.”
- Vikings guard Alex Boone has had the entire offseason and about six weeks of the regular season to go against Minnesota’s defense in practice. It’s made an impression on him. “We’re probably the nastiest defense I’ve ever played. I’ve been fortunate to play a lot of great defenses, but playing those guys in practice every day is quite difficult,” Boone said. “They might be very humble, but I won’t be and I’ll tell you that they are a hell of a D-line. They’re smart. The linebackers know what’s going on and they’re going to hit the (crap) out of you. Their DBs are smart, they’re aggressive. They know how to make plays. One thing I love out of everybody over there is they’re not afraid to hit you.”
- Sam Bradford has spread the wealth around in the passing game. Stefon Diggs led the Vikings in receiving yards in the first two games – the first with Shaun Hill at quarterback and the second with Bradford. Kyle Rudolph led the team in receiving yards in the third game, Charles Johnson led them in the fourth game, and Adam Thielen was the leader in the fifth game. “I think it’s really a compliment to our receivers because I don’t think we go into a game saying this guy is going to be the guy. I think they all know they have to be ready and when your number is called be productive with it,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “Obviously, Adam’s big day came because Diggs couldn’t play. He played the role of Diggs and he played it pretty good. Kyle’s had a couple big days and that’s where we’ve gotten people to back off a little bit and play coverage because we’re making plays on the outside.”