Vikings’ defensive turnaround in Year 1 with Zimmer provides hope for more

Minnesota saw a great improvement on defense in Mike Zimmer's first year as head coach. History shows that under Zimmer it should only get better from here on out.  

Brace Hemmelgarn/Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

The Cover-2 defense had run its course in Minnesota.

Once one of the consistent defensive philosophies, the scheme had become a predictable shell for the Minnesota Vikings, who slipped to one of the worst defenses in the NFL over the past several seasons. Quarterbacks like Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers had strong, accurate arms to exploit the zones, and often would know where he was going with the ball before the snap because he became accustomed to Minnesota’s looks.

Enter Mike Zimmer, the coach who would change everything about the Vikings’ defense.

Minnesota allowed the most points and second-most yards in the NFL in 2013, the last season under Leslie Frazier with tenants of the Cover-2 still in place. Expecting a dramatic turnaround in one season likely wasn’t realistic. Zimmer had different ideas.

The longtime defensive coordinator brought his varied scheme to the Vikings and orchestrated a defense that flirted with top-10 status for parts of the season. In the end, Minnesota finished 14th in total defense in giving up 344.7 yards per game and was 11th in scoring defense, allowing 21.4 points per game.

"We made big time strides," defensive end Brian Robison said after the season. "But like I said, we’re not satisfied with it. We’re not happy with being the No. 14-ranked defense. We want to be that top 10; we want to be that top 5-mold type of defense. And if we can get up there then we won’t be satisfied with that, we’re going to want to be No. 1. So we just got to go into this offseason, work really hard, everybody come back in shape, and then be able to put it on tape when we get back."

The advancement in one season was drastic, though.

The Vikings benefited from improvement of several young players like Smith, cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Everson Griffen stepped forward in his first full season as a starter and a rotation at tackle worked with Floyd, No. 1 free-agent target nose tackle Linval Joseph, offseason acquisition Tom Johnson and seventh-round rookie Shamar Stephen. Linebacker Anthony Barr was a big addition as the No. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft.

Minnesota allowed 113 fewer points than in 2013, the biggest improvement in the league. It cut its yards allowed by an average of 52.9 yards per game. The mentality changed.

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"He’s got his head in the right place," safety Harrison Smith said of Zimmer. "He’s brought a completely different tone around here, of just being professional, playing aggressive football, playing tough, disciplined football. Like I said, we’re not there yet, but he’s got us going there."

The promise of the future brings excitement to the Vikings.

They will have a second year in the system and another season to develop with the coaching staff. Minnesota had seven new starters on defense this past season. More changes are likely to come.

"I think I have obviously a better opinion of where we’re at and where we need to improve," Zimmer told Viking Update last week at the Senior Bowl. "We’re way ahead of where we were at that point (last year). Some of the guys we brought in last year really helped. We’ve still got some spots we’ve got to get a lot better at, but I think I feel like we’re going in the right direction."

The Vikings own the No. 11 pick in this year’s draft. Zimmer and Minnesota’s personnel staff could be looking to linebacker, safety and cornerback for new blood.

While the Vikings’ defense made a big leap in 2014, history shows Zimmer is even better in his second season with a new team.

When he took over in Cincinnati as defensive coordinator in 2008, the Bengals were 27th in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed in the NFL in 2007. They improved to 12th and 19th, respectively, in Zimmer’s first season.

In his second season in 2009, Cincinnati was a top-5 defense, giving up the fourth-fewest yards in the league and sixth-fewest points. In Zimmer’s final five seasons with the Bengals, the defense ranked lower than seventh just once.

Vikings '14 report card: Defense & coaches

Given his first chance to be a defensive coordinator in the NFL in Dallas in 2000, the Cowboys had the 19th-ranked defense in the league. Dallas improved to fourth a year later. Two years later, the Cowboys had the league’s top defense and allowed the second-fewest points.

"That’s something I’m pretty excited about, that aspect of it," Smith said. "Not that it was overly complicated or anything. Just being familiar with things the second time around should make things a lot smoother, as long as we’re putting in the work and trying to get better. But we don’t have to learn new verbiage and stuff like that."

There is room for improvement, particularly against the run. Adding Joseph and middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley was expected to improve Minnesota’s run defense. Instead, the Vikings allowed 11 more yards per game in 2014.

"I think we need to be more assignment sound," Robison said. "I think when we were able to do that this year we showed we can be one of the top defenses in the league, and I think we need to tackle better next year. I think that was one of the big deals that got us in trouble this year; was not being assignment sound, and not tackling well. So if we can sure up those two deals we got a chance to be a pretty dang good defense around here."

The biggest improvement was in pass defense, where Minnesota allowed 63.9 fewer yards per game, ranking seventh in the NFL in pass defense with an average of 223.3 yards per game.

"Each game is a little bit different in the fact that you’re trying to take away certain things," Zimmer said at his season-ending press conference. "I don’t believe defensively we were at the point we could just kind of do whatever we wanted to do. We had to kind of pick our spots in a lot of different ways, still, right now.

"I know that we finished 14th in the league in defense but that’s not really not a big deal. It’s really not a big deal to me. It’s not anywhere close to where I want to be. Did we make some strides in some areas? Yeah, I think so, but it’s not really what I’m looking for."

Zimmer is looking for even more improvement from a defense that is drastically different from the days of the Cover-2.

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