Thirteen years go, Mike Zimmer agreed to join the Atlanta Falcons as the defensive coordinator under head coach Bobby Petrino.
Zimmer’s tenure lasted only one season because Petrino decided to resign 13 games into the season and take the head coaching job at the University of Arkansas.
It didn’t take long for Zimmer to find another job, joining the Cincinnati Bengals as defensive coordinator in 2008. However, Zimmer has been very critical of Petrino’s decision to resign in the middle of the 2007 season, using some colorful language to express his opinion.
Perhaps these events are fueling Zimmer’s dominance against the Falcons since he took over as head coach for the Minnesota Vikings in 2014.
No, Petrino has not been a member of the Falcons organization during Zimmer’s tenure as head coach of the Vikings, but for whatever reason the Vikings have had no problems with Atlanta in the four times they’ve played.
The quarterback-receiver duo of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones has played in each game. Ryan has struggled to find a rhythm in each of the four matchups against Zimmer’s Vikings, while Jones has been held in check regularly — usually by former Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
Zimmer’s first matchup against Atlanta as head coach of the Vikings came Week 4 of 2014, which happened to be Teddy Bridgewater‘s first career start at quarterback. Minnesota quickly jumped into the lead and never looked back, prevailing 41-28. The Falcons mustered some garbage time offense, but Ryan was mostly flustered while the game was in doubt, tossing a couple of interceptions and tallying a mediocre passer rating of 87.2.
One year later, Minnesota traveled to Atlanta and earned a 20-10 win to improve to 8-3, greatly improving their playoff hopes. The Falcons, who were also in the playoff mix, fell to 6-5 thanks to another disappointing performance from Ryan. He threw just one touchdown pass to two interceptions and tallied a passer rating of just 76.0. Jones was held to just 56 receiving yards.
Zimmer’s most successful season in Minnesota also included a win at Atlanta. In 2017, the Vikings won this matchup in classic Zimmer fashion by a score of 14-9, relying on a superb defensive effort. Ryan threw for just 173 yards and recorded a passer rating of 72.9 in the loss. Meanwhile, Jones caught just two passes for 24 yards.
And of course, the Vikings opened the 2019 season hosting the Falcons. The game was essentially over by halftime, as the Vikings jumped out to a 21-0 lead by halftime and stretched it to 28-0 by the end of the third quarter. Ryan was able to utilize garbage time to pad the stat sheet but still wound up with just two touchdown passes and two interceptions for a passer rating of 85.8 in a 28-12 loss to Zimmer’s Vikings.
So, to recap, that’s three straight games in which the Vikings have held the Falcons to 12 or fewer points. Ryan has looked like a mediocre quarterback in each game thanks to the smothering Minnesota defense.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the situation is a little different. Zimmer’s Vikings are in the midst of a defensive overhaul with several new faces seeing significant playing time. The youth and inexperience led to a rough start, and the Vikings sit at 1-4 through five games.
Minnesota’s defense has found itself over the past three games, however, specifically when it comes to third down. The Vikings have allowed an 18% conversion rate the past three games, which is by far the best in the NFL. In fact, that stretch has vaulted the Vikings to first in the NFL in third-down defense.
It seems as if Zimmer has figured out how to coach this new group of younger players. Perhaps a normal year with a typical preseason would have yielded the results we’re used to seeing from a Zimmer defense.
Zimmer’s history against Atlanta aside, the Falcons are exactly what the Vikings need to get back into the win column before the Week 7 bye. The Falcons are 0-5 this season and Ryan has not looked like the quarterback that won MVP just a few years ago.
Of course, even if the Falcons entered this week 5-0, there’s enough reason to believe in Zimmer’s team. It’s unlikely Zimmer’s success against Atlanta the past few years is actually fueled by the aforementioned events of 2007. But the fact of the matter is that Zimmer’s squads always fire on all cylinders against Ryan and the Falcons, and we’ll get to see another episode this Sunday.