MANKATO, Minn. — Picture lining up against Aaron Rodgers, one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks leading one of the best offenses. Now, picture Rodgers surveying the defense and calling out the exact play the defense is running.
Good luck stopping the offense, right?
That scenario is essentially what the Minnesota Vikings have been facing for some time, so engrained in the Cover-2 defense employed by Leslie Frazier, first as defensive coordinator and then as head coach. Of course, Rodgers in Green Bay plays in the same division as Minnesota, getting at least two games a year against looks he’s seen time and again.
"They see your defense over and over and over again," defensive end Brian Robison said Friday at the beginning of the Vikings’ training camp. "Heck, there was sometimes we’d line up and Aaron Rodgers is calling out our defense as we’re lining up."
Robison isn’t worried about such a scenario this season.
With Mike Zimmer taking over as the Vikings’ head coach for Frazier, Minnesota’s defensive scheme and philosophies are changing. Gone are the days of the Cover 2 and in are Zimmer’s varied looks and aggressive, blitzing style.
Rodgers, Chicago’s Jay Cutler and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford won’t be able to approach the center and look over the same defense they’ve seen for years.
"I think the thing with Zimmer’s defense is he’s going to definitely keep them off balance because there’s so any disguised looks, there’s so many ways that we line up in the defense; different fronts," Robison said. "It’s just all over the board. It’s a lot of stuff to learn in a short period of time but if we can learn it and we can execute it, it’s going to keep offenses definitely off balance."
Robison doesn’t believe the Cover-2 defense from the past became outdated, but teams were able to scheme against the Vikings’ familiar approach.
In 12 career games against Minnesota, Rodgers is 8-4 and has thrown 26 touchdowns to just four interceptions and compiled a 117.9 quarterback rating. Cutler is 7-2 in his career against the Vikings, with a 92.5 quarterback rating. Stafford is only 3-5 in his career against Minnesota, but has thrown 12 touchdowns to four interceptions and has a 90.6 quarterback rating.
"When you play a scheme that you don’t change yourself a whole lot, you have to be really good at what you do and you have to have a defensive line that’s just purely dominant," Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway said. "Especially in the NFC North with the types of guys that can throw the ball around, you have to be really good and we just weren’t good enough, clearly, and I think the mentality shift that coach Zimmer is going to bring, especially if we buy in and execute it, I think we can have some success."
Including six games a year against Rodgers, Cutler and Stafford, the Vikings’ defense has gradually slipped over the past several years.
Minnesota allowed the most points in the NFL last season. It gave up the second-most yards. The defense held as much blame for the fall to 5-10-1 last season as the unsettled quarterback situation.
The new looks on defense help the Vikings turn the page from last year’s poor results.
"You know, sometimes when you have things like that, it’s a little bit easier when you have a new coaching staff and a new scheme, and things like that," Robison said. "So you just kind of let it go and kind of get that out of your mind because things are going to be totally different around here. The only way we can do that is by putting the past behind us and moving forward. Really that’s what it was about, as bad as we were and as bad as it hurts to look at that on paper, this is 2014. We can’t sit here and dwell on 2013."
The players appreciate the changes and are excited about the philosophy.
"Aggressive," Robison said when asked to define the new defense. "Really and truly, that’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to play very aggressive and we’re just going to get after people."
The personnel has taken on a different look, with sweeping changes across the defense. Gone are longtime stalwarts Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. Zimmer brought in nose tackle Linval Joseph who he said, "looked like a nose tackle’s supposed to look," during Friday’s walk-through. Veteran cornerback Captain Munnerlyn was signed. Anthony Barr was the ninth overall pick in the draft.
Zimmer has implemented changes in technique. He wants to be a good tackling team. Most of all, the Vikings need to be better on the back end of the defense.
"For us to improve defensively, we’ve got to cover better," Zimmer acknowledged.
The biggest downfall in recent seasons for Minnesota has been the play of the secondary. Last year, the Vikings gave up 37 passing touchdowns, the most in the league, and allowed the third-highest quarterback rating to opponents (98.6).
"With the NFL the way it is right now, you have to be able to cover," Zimmer said. "You have to be able to contest balls. You have to be in people’s face. You have to understand route concepts and where you need to be and you have to all be on the same page. You can’t bust coverages. You can’t give up plays like that.
Zimmer added: "Typically the teams that are lower-ranked defensively statistically are poor tackling football teams. They give up big plays. They bust coverages. They don’t keep the quarterback contained in the right situation."
It helps to not let the quarterback know the defensive call, too.