Despite injuries and a tough schedule, Mike Zimmer has a framework for success with the Vikings
Sunday, the Minnesota Vikings travel to Philadelphia. The Vikes, coming off a bye week, are the only one of the 32 NFL teams still unbeaten, and the game is already being dubbed 'Bradford Bowl', as quarterback Sam Bradford returns to face the team that traded him away just a week before the season started.
Many pundits picked Minnesota as a 'dark horse' contender this season; a little surprising in that last year they finished 11-5, won their division over the Green Bay Packers, and only lost their opening playoff game to Seattle by a 10-9 score due to the Blair Walsh Project: a horror story moment that saw their kicker shank a game-winning field goal from only 27 yards out.
Image: Jim Mone / AP/Press Association Images
Coming off that disappointment, the Vikes boasted the league's best running back in Adrian Peterson, a quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater who looked ready to take a leap forward in his third season, and, in third-year head coach Mike Zimmer, a defensive mastermind who showed the ability, to see the big picture and keep the team focused on it as well - something which many coordinators don't have when they move up to the big job.
The Vikes' biggest problem in 2015 was the offensive line, so general manager Rick Spielman upgraded with the free agent signings of Alex Boone from San Francisco and Andre Smith from Zimmer's former club, Cincinnati.
They used their first draft pick on Laquon Treadwell, the kind of big wide receiver who can win one-on-one jump balls. Speilman, who had hired Zimmer, seemed to have a symbiotic relationship with his coach: their roster-building had brought in just the kinds of players Zimmer needed. Calling the Vikes a 'dark horse' seemed like it was undervaluing them.
Then in training camp Bridgewater suffered a freak, non-contact knee injury that could keep him out for more than a year. Three days later, Spielman made a deal with the Eagles, who were enamoured of their rookie quarterback Carson Wentz. The Eagles got two high draft picks, which helped make up for the ones they traded away to get Wentz; the Vikes got a veteran whose reputation was as a skilled player who could not stay healthy long enough to help a team.
Veteran Shaun Hill, old enough to have played in NFL Europe for Amsterdam, started the season opener for Minnesota. He played competently, but they trailed 10-0 at the half, and won thanks to their defense, getting two touchdowns off turnovers to beat Tennessee 25-16. Bradford took over the next week and threw two touchdown passes as the Vikings beat arch-rivals Green Bay 17-14, their defense holding Aaron Rodgers and the Pack in check.
But the injuries kept coming. Peterson and left tackle Matt Kalil - the key man in protecting the quarterback - both were lost after week two. No matter. In the Vikings next three wins (one of which came over the defending NFC champion Panthers) they allowed only 33 points, while Bradford threw four more TD passes and didn't turn the ball over once.
Five wins, 63 points allowed. If you hold opponents under two touchdowns per game, you are going to win a lot of games. But there is always a price, and Minnesota are now also without Smith. Losing one starting tackle may be seen to be unlucky, losing both suggests a curse.
Image: Andy Clayton-King AP/Press Association Images
Not that Zimmer is fazed. Now 60, his slow progress to a shot at a head coaching job reflects his basic approach to football: no nonsense, demanding, straight-forward, and no BS. He's not one to woo owners with flattery, or dazzle them with computerized breakdowns of how he will turn the franchise around. To him, the proof is in the pudding.
You might compare him to another intense defensive mastermind who's been pretty successful as a boss: Bill Belichick of the Patriots. But where Belichick's system involves flexibility - changing their schemes for each opponent - Zimmer's relies on playing one system, with its variations, and executing it perfectly.
He coached defense in Dallas for 13 years, adjusting to four different head coaches. His brief spell in Atlanta in 2007 was marred by the sudden departure of head coach Bobby Petrino; but six years under Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati saw him create one of the league's best defenses.
It's all centered on A-gap pressure: relentlessly attack the gaps between the center and the two guards. The straightest path to the quarterback is directly up the middle, but it's not that simple: Zimmer plays with the threat of sending two rushers at the centre, trying to force the offense to commit its blockers to stop them. Usually this means either sliding every lineman in one direction, which tends to leave a rusher on the edge uncovered, or by keeping a back in to stop the extra rusher.
Sometimes the two will not rush: Spielman has found Zimmer linebackers quick enough to retreat back into deeper positions. The result of this is confusion for offenses, and sacks for his edge rushers. Everson Griffin, Bryan Robison and Danielle Hunter are not household names, but each has four sacks in the first five games; tackle Linval Joseph has three and is the anchor of the line against the run.
Image: Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer speaks during a news conference after an NFL football game against the Houston Texans. Jim Mone AP/Press Association Images
Zimmer backs this up with defensive backs whose responsibilities are defined strictly by what the line plans to do. It's demanding for them to execute those assignments, which is why Terrence Newman followed Zimmer from Dallas to Cincinnati, and now to Minnesota.
At 38, Newman is the oldest defensive player in the league. The number of 38-year-olds who've started at corner in NFL history can be counted on one hand. Newman might be able to play only in Minnesota, but the other corner, Xavier Rhodes, could play anywhere. Nickel corner Captain Munnerlyn will tell you he's the best in the league at his speciality. Behind them, like a second coordinator on the field, safety Harrison Smith reads the game as well as anyone east of Seattle's Earl Thomas.
Last week Carson Wentz was made to look like the rookie quarterback he is by a Washington pass-rush that ruthlessly attacked Philadelphia's weak link, rookie tackle Hala Vaitai, a replacement for the injured Lane Johnson. But remember, the Vikings are starting two second-choice tackles, and the Eagles' pass rushers, spread out wide, will prey on them.
And while this leaves Philadelphia's middle vulnerable to runners, neither Jerick McKinnon nor Matt Asiata are close to being an Adrian Peterson. It could be a low-scoring match decided by turnovers, which would favour Mike Zimmer and his defense.
But while the game is billed as Bradford Bowl, it might just as well be called the Kendricks Brothers Bowl. Minnesota's Eric is the quick middle linebacker who makes so much possible for Zimmer's defense. Mychal, as athletic as his brother, will patrol the edges for the Eagles, and try to keep tight end Kyle Rudolph in check.
Check? It sounds like a chess match, and it is one, at least until the gladiators are unleashed.