The Minnesota Vikings’ identity has been predicated on defense ever since Mike Zimmer took over in 2014. This philosophy has been mostly successful, especially when considering that the league as a whole is quickly becoming more offense-oriented.
Minnesota has been one of the best defensive teams in the NFL during Zimmer’s tenure. The 2017 season was truly Zimmer’s finest work, as his Vikings ranked No. 1 in the NFL in both points allowed and yards allowed. Additionally, the Vikings finished that season allowing third-down conversions at only a 25.2% rate, which was the best mark in recorded history.
Since then, Zimmer may have lost some of the heat on his fastball. The Vikings were top 10 in both yards and points allowed in 2018, and finished the 2019 season ranked fifth in points allowed and 14th in yards allowed. Minnesota also ranked fourth in turnovers created last season.
Clearly, Zimmer’s formula has worked in the past. Minnesota’s playoff berths in 2015, 2017 and 2019 do not happen without a stout defense and complex scheme spearheaded by Zimmer.
The 2020 season is unfolding much differently from the past few seasons for the Vikings defense. Minnesota is 30th and 28th in points and yards allowed, respectively, through seven weeks of the season. And of course, the Vikings are 1-5 on the year as visions of a playoff berth quickly fade away.
Despite the slow start to 2020, Zimmer still has respect around the NFL as a defensive mastermind. Most notably, Aaron Rodgers expressed to the media this week ahead of Sunday’s matchup between the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers that he thinks it’s crazy that Zimmer’s seat would be warm despite the slow start.
“He’s a phenomenal coach,” Rodgers said during a media session this week. “I was telling a friend of mine, to see (Zimmer) mentioned to be on the hot seat, to me, is absolutely crazy. I think he’s one of the best coaches in the league and has been for a long time. They don’t all give you the trouble and the scheme that Mike does. I have a lot of respect for the way he coaches, and the way he especially coaches defense.”
Clearly, Rodgers recognizes the way Zimmer’s schemes have been an issue at times for Rodgers, especially in recent seasons. Since 2015, Rodgers has recorded a passer rating of 100 or better in just three of 10 games played against the Vikings. He has also put up over seven yards per attempt just twice in those 10 games.
Overall, Zimmer is 5-7-1 against the Packers in his tenure with the Vikings. However, two of those wins did come in 2017 when Rodgers missed seven of eight quarters the two teams played. So, as difficult as Zimmer’s defense may seem to Rodgers, it hasn’t translated to a winning record.
The 2020 season has been unique for myriad reasons, and Zimmer’s defense performing so poorly is one of them. It showed in the Week 1 border battle matchup between Minnesota and Green Bay, when Rodgers assembled perhaps his finest performance against Zimmer with over 350 yards passing and four touchdowns.
There are a couple of ways to look at Zimmer’s defense this season, and they both revolve around the drastic turnover that has taken place among the personnel. One argument is that Zimmer is responsible for the defense regardless of who the 11 men in purple jerseys are lined up on defense. The other perspective is that Zimmer is the only thing holding together a defense that would otherwise be completely and totally inept.
Adding support to the latter perspective is that the Vikings, despite the loss of Michael Pierce, Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr for the season and colossal turnover at the cornerback position, Zimmer has Minnesota ranked No. 3 in the NFL in third-down defense, allowing conversions on just 33.8% of attempts.
Perhaps the correct perspective of the dichotomy is still unclear. The Vikings have been quite volatile this season. One week they’re neutralizing MVP candidate Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks high-octane offense, the next week they’re being steamrolled by the winless (at the time) Atlanta Falcons.
But it’s clear Rodgers and the Packers won’t take this depleted Vikings defense lightly largely because of Zimmer’s prowess as a defensive tactician. Sunday presents an opportunity for Zimmer to prove many naysayers wrong and show that he can still pitch effectively, even if the fastball doesn’t have the same heat.
It presents an opportunity for Zimmer to prove Rodgers right.