With the NFL trade deadline on Tuesday, fans of the Minnesota Vikings would celebrate the chance for a quick-fix solution on the offensive line.
The rumor mills have been running fast and loose with scenarios for the Vikings: trade for Joe Staley, trade for Joe Thomas, trade for anyone on the offensive line who isn’t an ordinary Joe. But, much as it might pain fans, the Vikings seem unlikely to make a quick-fix trade after already doing that for quarterback Sam Bradford.
Instead, what fans should expect is that the Vikings will take a patient approach to the process, much like they have had with “The Fixer,” head coach Mike Zimmer, tending to his defense since his hiring in 2014. General manager Rick Spielman said he isn’t willing to part with young talent that the Vikings have developed and he is already missing his 2017 first-round pick and perhaps as high as a second-round pick in 2018 after trading for Bradford.
In two-plus years, Zimmer has wiped away the memory of Vikings defenses that were routinely shredded without much resistance, including late in games when it mattered most. Look no further than the Vikings’ struggles in Soldier Field, where they will visit again on Monday.
Instead of entering that prime-time game with a suspect defense, the Vikings proudly sport a top-notch defense that is first in total yards per game, yards per play and tied for first in points allowed per game, second in passing yards per game, second in percentage of passes intercepted and fourth-down efficiency, and third in rushing yards per game. In fact, they are top 10 in all 12 of the major defensive categories.
Before Zimmer arrived, they were last in points allowed and second-to-last in yards allowed.
“It’s crazy. When you see the way this team has developed, the way this defense has developed, it’s just something about this defense that we do. We jell together very well, on and off the field,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “When we’re on the field, it’s hard to explain, but it’s one of those deals that you can feel that there’s something special there and it shows up on tape every week.”
The Vikings had a talented team in 2009, the last time they reached the NFC Championship Game and there are high expectations once again this year. Back then, Brett Favre was the toast of the team. This year, the defense is earning the laudatory headlines.
In 2009, there were talented, star players on defense, but this year there are stars at every level and it’s much more of a team effort.
“I would say the talent level is probably about the same. When you look across the board at 11 or 15 (defenders) when you’re adding depth, individual players were very similar in a lot of ways. I think the one thing that is a little bit different about this team from that team is we relied on that talent. This team, we don’t rely on talent, we rely on all 11 guys doing their job,” Robison said. “This guy may do his job it creates plays for this guy to make and vice versa. It’s also one of the hardest working defenses that I’ve been a part of. I shouldn’t even say ‘one of.’ It is the hardest working defense I’ve been a part of.”
Fans can largely thank Zimmer for that. His influence has been imprinted on the defense as a whole and the individual defenders, stamped with his credibility from the past and present. His system works and the players know it.
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His hard-working, no-excuses mentality translates to the players.
“He has built something here, has built a mentality of being tougher, more physical, more disciplined than your opponent and it shows up week in and week out,” Robison said.
When things don’t go right, which hasn’t happened too often on defense this year, Zimmer lets his players know exactly how he feels. Whether it’s effort, lack of execution or a lapse in attention to detail, he isn’t afraid to make his feelings known – in team meetings, private talks and even in public press conferences.
“It’s tough love. He hates us, then loves us; love us, then hates us,” running back Matt Asiata said. “We respect Zimmer to the fullest and we’re just going to respond.”
Robison said every player buys what Zimmer is selling. Since the veterans have seen it work at the highest level, their trust in it descends to the last player on the team.
“Sometimes when a new coach comes in and tries to do those things, you have all the guys that won’t buy in because they’ve done it for so long. Young guys will come in and they don’t know any better and they’re here just trying to make plays and so they don’t buy in,” Robison said. “At the end of the day, I think he’s brought in the bright young guys that have bought into it. And us older guys, like myself and Chad (Greenway) and Terence Newman – obviously Terence having a history (with Zimmer), but myself and Chad being a part of something that’s totally different – we bought into it. We could see from the beginning that this was a formula that could be a winning formula for us. So we bought into it.”
Zimmer’s influence extends down to the players, but also upstairs to the front office. Spielman never seemed to completely trust former head coach Leslie Frazier, but when it comes to Zimmer, the G.M. and head coach are in lock step. Spielman relies on the coaching staff for the traits they want in players and puts in incredible hours and miles trying to find those guys.
In 2014, it was Anthony Barr and Shamar Stephen in the draft and Linval Joseph, Tom Johnson and Captain Munnerlyn in free agency. In 2015, it was Trae Waynes, Eric Kendricks and Danielle Hunter in the draft and Terence Newman in free agency. This year, it was Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse adding depth in the draft and Emmanuel Lamur in free agency.
The system has worked brilliantly on defense with a slow build the last three years, turning a group of overwhelmed athletes into an overwhelmingly successful unit. That’s the kind of approach it will take in the next year or two as they build up an offense that may only be a couple of reliable, consistent performers away, despite what the statistics say.
- The Vikings may have their interior on the offensive line in place for the next couple years, but tackle is clearly a big question mark that has to be addressed. The tackles were responsible for at least four of the six sacks on Bradford last week. The Eagles changed their modus operandi on defense, blitzing defensive backs 13 times, matching their total from the previous five games combined, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Will the Bears do the same on Monday night? They have blitzed less than all but one team this year, according to ESPN.
- All of that pressure on Bradford resulted in three turnovers by him last Sunday – two of his three fumbles lost and an interception.
- Carson Wentz was actually better against the blitz than with no blitz. He completed 78.7 percent of his attempts when blitzed and only 59.1 with no blitz, according to Real Football Network. The Vikings may want to consider a heavy blitz package on Jay Cutler, who has only played seven quarters this year to start the season but returns to action for the first time since a thumb injury. Brian Hoyer, who took over for Cutler in Week 2, was in the bottom five when blitzed, completing only 47.7 of his passes when blitzed and 71.6 when he wasn’t blitzed. The league average vs. the blitz is 58.1.
- Adrian Peterson led the NFL last year in stuffs, the number of runs for zero or negative yards. This year, with Peterson injured in Week 2, Jerick McKinnon is getting stuffed on 26.5 percent of his runs, third-worst in the league, according to Real Football, and is last in the league with only 35.3 percent of his rushes being quality ones (quality runs defined: on first down, rush play must achieve at least 40 percent of yards necessary to convert a first down; on second down, rush play must achieve at least 50 percent of yards necessary to convert; on third or fourth down, the rush play must gain a first down; all rushing touchdowns count as quality rushes)
- After Bradford’s pressures last week, the Vikings will have to be concerned with Bears LB Willie Young. He has 19 pressures – six sacks, and 13 hurries – and six tackles for loss.
- On the other side, the Vikings should be able to take advantage of tackle Bobby Massie, who has allowed 15 pressures, which is tied for 10th-most.
- The big key in the passing game for the Vikings defense to stop is Alshon Jeffery, who is tied for 10th with 26 catches that resulted in a first down or touchdown.
- The Bears know who they will have to stop on third down. Kyle Rudolph is tied for seventh with 20 third-down targets, accounting for 41.7 of the Vikings’ third-down passes, according to Real Football. Of the top-10 targeted receivers on third down, only San Francisco’s Jeremy Kerley has been targeted a higher percentage (42.1).