Vikings

Vikings New-Look Defensive Structure Introduces Fresh Faces Yet Maintains Continuity

Photos via USA Today/Edited by Zone Coverage

The week following the Minnesota Vikings’ elimination from the NFL playoffs was a time of contemplation.

Mike Zimmer delayed the organization’s customary end-of-year evaluations to give his staff time to unwind. The head coach also needed time to weigh his options on the defensive coaching staff, which was about to undergo its biggest shakeup in Zimmer’s tenure. For six years, Zimmer oversaw George Edwards, Jerry Gray, Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer as his primary assistants.

Now the team was prepared to let go of Edwards, the defensive coordinator, and Gray, the defensive backs coach, perhaps a foreshadowing move emblematic of the decisions about to take place on the aging Vikings defense. The contracts of Everson Griffen, Xavier Rhodes and Linval Joseph will all need to be examined this offseason while myriad free agent defensive backs weigh their options.

The 2020 defensive unit will almost certainly look different, and the coaching will too. But Zimmer still sought continuity, so he asked his son, linebackers coach Adam Zimmer, and defensive line coach Andre Patterson, one of his closest confidantes, if they’d share the defensive coordinator duties while remaining with the position groups where they’d resided since 2014. After some one-on-one meetings between Zimmer and Patterson to flesh out how the unorthodox dual-title partnership might work, they agreed it made sense for the Vikings organization to team up and accept the unique promotion.

“Adam and I understand what [the defense] is supposed to look like,” Patterson said Tuesday. “I think that’s the biggest thing. You can’t achieve it until you know what it’s supposed to look like, and Adam and I know when this defense is right, what it’s supposed to look like. I think Mike understands that, and because we’ve had our players here for so long, that’s made it easy. I’m glad that we had that situation, but things always change in this league and you just go the way you go.”

Zimmer had one more surprise in store on the defensive side of the ball.

The defensive-minded head coach has long been willing to bring in veteran offensive minds — often former head coaches — to take charge and allow Zimmer to pour himself into play-calling duties on defense. To name a few: Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur, Tony Sparano and former-consultant-turned coordinator Gary Kubiak. The defense has stayed Zimmer’s baby, as it will remain. But Monday he brought in a defensive mind from a former rival to essentially audit the defense and offer fresh insights to Zimmer’s system that produced a top-10 defense in points allowed each of the last five years.

Dom Capers, the 69-year-old ex-Packers defensive coordinator, will be taking on a defensive consulting role much like the one Kubiak held on offense a year ago.

“I had written down toward the end of the season that I’d kind of like to get another defensive guy in there that has a background in a lot of different things,” Mike Zimmer said. “There’s some things that he’s done that intrigue me that I’d like to know more about. It’s more about just having another set of eyes in there, and also being able to say, ‘Hey, we used to run this pressure, what do you think about this?’ or as we’re putting the defensive package together, being able to discuss different things and go from there.”

Capers, Adam Zimmer and Patterson each bring different experiences to the table. Capers is a football lifer. Patterson is a specialist. Adam Zimmer grew up around the NFL. The three of them, along with Mike Zimmer, will work together to shape would could be a new generation of the Vikings defense.

THE OVERSEER

After over four decades in the NFL, Capers has seen almost everything (though a co-defensive coordinator arrangement might be a new wrinkle in the traditional chain of command). Since joining the NFL ranks in 1986, Capers can say he’s been the head coach for two start-up franchises in Carolina and Houston, watched Randy Moss catch passes from Tom Brady in New England and won a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers, where he spent nine seasons from 2009-17.

At almost 70 years old, what keeps motivating Capers, who spent 2019 as a defensive assistant with the Jacksonville Jaguars?

“I just moved from 75-degree weather, and they tell me it’s going to be minus-10 or 15 here in a couple days,” Capers lamented, “but I think it’s the competitive nature. That’s what you know, and that’s starting all the way back to I spent 12 years in college, and this will be 34 years now in the NFL, with a couple years in the USFL. … I think it’s like players when they’re done playing. Probably the thing they say they miss the most is being in the locker room and around the guys, having a common goal, where you’re going to work together and pull together, and there’s nothing more rewarding than walking off the field on Sunday after three hours winning the game. I don’t know that you can ever replace that.”

After competing against the Vikings in the NFC North, Capers knows the organization well and is excited to get back in the so-called Black-and-Blue Division. His background in a 3-4 scheme offers a new perspective on things as Minnesota tries to stay ahead of the curve. Zimmer has mixed up his blitzes over the years as opponents got wise to his vaunted double-A-gap pressure with linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr. With Kendricks coming off a career year and Barr still a threat to rush the passer, getting the most out of the Vikings’ backers could be one of Capers’ objectives.

“I think that to me the biggest thing in this league is figuring out who your best players are and then adapting what you’re doing to fit the players,” Capers said. “Looking back, I’ve been involved in a lot of 3-4 defenses. There’s been times that we’ve gone to 4-3, but there’s carryover, I think, between both schemes. Mike’s A-gap blitz, walking linebackers up into the A-gaps and attacking protections and all that is something that I’ve always admired and, quite frankly, copied at times. Going back to when I first went to Pittsburgh, not many people were zone-blitzing back then, and so we started zone blitzing and had a lot of success with it. Then within a few years a lot of people were zone blitzing, and the more familiar people become with it sometimes loses its effectiveness and you have to look for the next edge.”

Capers isn’t there to expedite an overhaul. But with Edwards gone and the new co-coordinators staying with their position groups, the Vikings lacked an overseeing presence on the defensive side of the ball.

“We won’t change defensively terminology,” Zimmer said. “His role will be more of kind of an overseer, an idea person: maybe the corners should play this way or maybe we should play defensive line a little differently. Just things like that, really.”

‘A MARKER AND A GREASE BOARD’

Like Capers, Patterson has no shortage of experience. Now approaching his own 40-year anniversary working in football, Patterson has finally received the promotion he’s long desired: A defensive coordinator position in the NFL.

Not that he wasn’t deserving before. Patterson had offers to land one of those jobs when he the defensive line coach at Cleveland and Denver, but those organizations blocked him from leaving.

“My problem is that I do too good of a job,” Patterson said, “so they won’t let me out.”

Patterson’s track record in Minnesota reflects that. He groomed Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph into stars on the Vikings defensive line — none of whom were first-round picks. It’s the first time Patterson has had the opportunity to see his players’ development through, since his longest previous stop was in Dallas from 2000-02 with Zimmer as a colleague.

The two have shared four stops together, including Weber State in 1988 where Patterson received his first defensive line coaching job and met four-year-old Adam Zimmer, his new coaching partner.

“I’ve known Adam since he was a little boy,” Patterson said. “That tells you how old I am.”

Patterson also joked that he knows Mike Zimmer better than anybody but Zimmer’s family. The two have developed a “good cop, bad cop” dynamic, according to the 59-year-old coach.

“I’m more of the motherly type,” Patterson said. “I’m going to put my arm around you and teach you just like I did when I was a teacher. So I always use the analogy of if I was a math teacher and you were having problems with something, I wouldn’t stand by you and hit you in the back of the head and cuss you out. I’d pull up a chair and sit down and show you how to figure out the problem. That’s my philosophy as a coach. If a guy is having a hard time getting his feet on the ground right, or putting his hands in the right place, or having his eyes in the right place, it’s my job to figure out a way to help him improve in that area.”

General science and physical education. Those were the subjects Patterson taught at Renton High School in the mid-1980s. Now he’s teaching world-class athletes how to fix their rushing style, dip around offensive tackles and wrap up ball-carriers.

“All I need is a marker and a grease board,” Patterson said, speaking like a true teacher. “You give me a marker and a grease board, that’s what I’m going to do. So if you go into our installs when the rookies come up here, you walk in some rooms, everything is up on the board and they got their [computer] going and the slides going. You walk into my room, and I’m sweating. It’s up on the board. I’m scratching stuff off with my hands. That’s how you coach.”

FAMILY TRADITION?

There’s no indication yet whether Mike Zimmer will surrender play-calling duties. While it’s something he’s contemplated for years, the head coach has never been able to cede control of one of the coaching elements he enjoys the most.

But if he ever did, wouldn’t it make sense to pass the reins to his son?

Adam Zimmer has 14 years of experience in the league, half of those spent with his father.

“We have a great relationship, great communication,” Adam Zimmer said of his relationship with his father. “It was an adjustment at first when we were in Cincinnati [in 2013], but we’ve been doing it seven years now, so I know how to approach him. I know how he thinks, and I think we have a great working relationship, one where I can learn a lot from him.”

Like Patterson, Adam Zimmer can lean on his recent success at his position group coaching high-end talent like Barr and Kendricks while squeezing the most out of role players like Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson.

Adam Zimmer and Patterson will attempt to merge their areas of expertise — linebackers and defensive line, respectively — while the elder Zimmer will likely chip in with his secondary knowledge to help construct the weekly gameplans.

“I think it’s a collaborative effort,” Adam Zimmer said. “We’re going to be in there, Dre and I are going to make this transition as smooth as possible. We’ll work together on the game plans, I know Coach will be involved a lot in them. I think that the more we can collaborate and work together, the better it’s going to be, because we’ve all been through a lot of games in this league.”

Having Mike Zimmer as the defense’s anchor should ease the transition into 2020 as the new defensive staff familiarizes itself. As the new season comes together, there won’t be margin for indecision while the Vikings attempt to get over the hump — potentially with a new-look defense as well.

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Photos via USA Today/Edited by Zone Coverage

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