The Minnesota Vikings’ defensive continuity that has spanned most of Mike Zimmer’s tenure would’ve come in handy this virtual offseason. In fact, the Minnesota defense of 2017-19 might’ve had an advantage over the rest of the NFL thanks to its inherent knowledge of Zimmer’s scheme and lack of roster turnover.
But after losing three starting cornerbacks and two starting defensive linemen, the Vikings are going back to the basics on defense as they look to catch the newcomers up to speed with two new voices coordinating the defense.
Co-defensive coordinators Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer spoke to reporters Thursday about their first offseason working together.
Neither Adam Zimmer nor Patterson are accustomed to working directly with defensive backs. Zimmer has been the club’s linebackers coach since 2014; same for Patterson with the defensive line. New defensive backs coach Daronte Jones, along with DB guru Mike Zimmer, will likely take on big mentorship roles with Minnesota’s rookie corners Jeff Gladney, Cameron Dantzler and Harrison Hand.
Adam Zimmer is also taking a greater interest in organizing the back end while Patterson focuses on the front four.
“You’re always going to have young players,” Adam Zimmer said, “and we do have a number of young defensive backs, but I think that they have done a great job in these offseason meetings. I can tell a huge difference from when we had our first virtual walk-through with the rookies to what we had today. They understand the defense really well.
“We just have to fine-tune their technique and their fundamentals. Daronte [Jones] has done a great job along with Roy Anderson of sending them videos and drills that they can do on their own. Hopefully, they can start working on those before they get here. Once they get here, we’ll hone-in on those details and fundamentals.”
Those fundamentals will include pattern-matching and press coverage — both of which are difficult to mimic without live reps. Mike Zimmer said earlier this offseason that defensive backs were arguably the most disadvantaged by missing practices.
The truncated offseason might’ve influenced Minnesota’s decision to use the franchise tag to retain safety Anthony Harris, who keeps the Vikings’ starting safety tandem intact with Harrison Smith. Rick Spielman previously indicated it will be beneficial to have two experienced safeties to provide a failsafe for the youthful cornerbacks.
“They’re extremely smart football players,” Adam Zimmer said of the safeties. “They can sometimes have communication just by looking at each other. They’ve got a really good chemistry. They have great communication with the rest of the defense as well, so they can help communicate with the corners and help communicate with the linebackers. They do a great job of making in-game adjustments when we have to make those. It’s a good duo to help make the whole defense better.”
Vikings veterans will have a bigger role than ever this season in light of the many departures, so a lot will fall in the lap of Eric Kendricks. He was arguably Minnesota’s best defensive player a year ago and Pro Football Focus’s top-ranked linebacker. Now Kendricks enters his sixth year in the system.
“I think that we have to go back and watch the older players because we know they’re doing our scheme the way that we want it to be done and the technique that we want,” Adam Zimmer said. “Each player is going to have their own attributes that they are good at, but we need to show the players how to execute the scheme.
“I’ve gone back in the linebacker room, we’ve watched training camp practices from last year … so they can see how we’re supposed to look and how we’re not supposed to look in certain cases. I think it’s very valuable to look at the way Eric Kendricks plays Mike (middle) linebacker or the way Anthony Barr plays Sam (strong side). It’s something you have to do so these guys can get a visual of it because they can’t physically do it right now.”
Regular season: 12 pass breakups
Postseason: INT, pass breakup
— NFL (@NFL) March 15, 2020
Kendricks’ league-high 12 passes broken up in 2019 demonstrates the changing responsibilities of today’s linebackers. Playing a middle backer role like Kendricks used to mean something different than it does today, where ‘Mike’ linebackers often must take on a defensive backs’ mindset.
“The two-down Mike linebacker, those don’t exist anymore, [where] they go downhill and they punch the guard every first and second down,” Zimmer said.
“Eric Kendricks has to cover like 50 yards deep on 2nd and 4 sometimes, so we’re looking for more athletic-type linebackers that can run and that are smart. I think that’s what we focused on not only in the draft but in free agency. We got those type of guys. That’s what the league has evolved into now.”
Minnesota nabbed Oregon linebacker Troy Dye in the fourth round, best known for his speed and coverage skills. For incoming rookies like Dye, Kendricks’ words will carry plenty of weight, and not just on the field. The veteran has been a leading voice in the Vikings’ stand for social justice after the death of George Floyd. A member of the team’s social justice committee, Kendricks called for the NFL to take specific action to fight racial inequality and took part in several team-led initiatives.
“Eric is a tremendous person,” Zimmer said. “He does a lot of things in the community, and he’s always very vocal. You don’t hear him talk as much … but I’m really proud of him for putting himself out there and standing up for what he believes in. He does everything the right way, is a great kid, a great worker. We’re thankful to have him.”
New D-line faces
Losing a pair of stalwarts on the defensive line hasn’t fazed Patterson, an eternal optimist. The former school teacher — now the Vikings’ defensive line whisperer — is embracing the chance to coach in a classroom setting with a defensive line group that includes ascending talent Ifeadi Odenigbo, rookie ends D.J. Wonnum and Kenny Willekes, superstar Danielle Hunter and a bevy of interior rushers.
“I feel really good about the room,” Patterson said. “Rick and the front office have done a great job of getting me talent. We’ve got great competition in that room from top to bottom.”
Hunter is a known commodity and may soften the blow of losing Everson Griffen. So, too, is new nose tackle Michael Pierce, the replacement for six-year Vikings starter Linval Joseph. The other two spots have yet to be filled, though Odenigbo enters 2020 training camp with a clear edge after his seven-sack season in 2019. He’ll be contending with Wonnum, the fourth-round pick who turned heads with a similar combine performance to Odenigbo himself.
“He’s long, he’s athletic, and he’s very smart,” said Patterson. “You know, before the combine, I got to watch a lot of film on him, and I was very, very intrigued by him. Then when I got a chance to visit with him at the combine and got a chance to watch him work at the combine, then I became very excited about him.
“The things he has I can’t give him as a coach. I can’t give him that length. I can’t give him that explosiveness. I can’t give him those things. If he has the desire to work and improve as a player, then we can have a chance to have something here. Those were the intangibles that got me excited about D.J.”
True to his nature, Patterson is excited about the interior defensive line, too, but it’s hard to peg who, specifically, he’s excited about. The Vikings have no fewer than a half dozen candidates to take snaps at 3-technique. Among them: Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, Shamar Stephen and James Lynch.
“I’m excited about that group,” Patterson said. “There’s great talent within the group. There’s a good mix of old and youth. You’ve still got a good group of guys that are working to continue to progress their games, and I think we’ve got some guys that are ready to turn the corner. It’s going to be a great competition with that group throughout training camp to see how it’s going to figure itself out.”
Ultimately, the coaches’ words confirm what fans have known throughout the spring: The Vikings are set at safety and linebacker but have a lot of growing to do at corner and defensive line. And unlike some teams that have called off virtual meetings completely or ended them early, Minnesota’s coaching staff is squeezing out every minute with their young roster.