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Film Breakdown: A Schematic and Personnel Preview of the Vikings' Defense

An in-depth look at Mike Zimmer's defense.

With the Vikings’ offense thoroughly examined from top to bottom, the time has come to do the same with their defense. 

While the offense is fairly similar to the Bengals’ offense, the Vikings’ defense is much different. However, the defense is probably still fairly familiar to most Bengals fans because of the man in charge of it, Mike Zimmer. 

Zimmer began his duties as defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2008. By his second season, he was recognized as the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year by both Pro Football Writers of America and CBS Sports. He had a top 10 defense by points per game in four out of his six seasons as defensive coordinator. This prompted the Vikings to hire him as their head coach in 2014. As the head coach of the Vikings, Zimmer has had a top-10 defense in points allowed in all but one season (last year), including three top-5 finishes with one of those being the number one overall defense in points allowed. The elevator pitch for Zimmer’s defense is to play solid run defense from split safety looks to force third and long where he can bring creative pressures with press coverage behind it.

The Mike Zimmer Defense

Let’s begin the schematic breakdown of Zimmer’s defense with the less sexy run defensive portion. Although it has changed, Zimmer likes to play his defense in a 4-down front with a strong nose tackle (think Michael Pierce, Linval Joseph, or Domata Peko) and defensive ends that can rush the passer while being plus run defenders as well (think Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, or Danielle Hunter). He has been a proponent of split safety coverages like quarters, quarter-quarter-half, and Cover 2 more than the average defensive play-caller over the past decade or so. While most teams have been attempting to recreate the Seattle Cover 3 stuff he has been staying true to himself and what he believes in. This does not mean he does not like to run single-high coverages though. He likes to mix all of his coverages to make sure the offense has to stay on their toes even on early downs. While the early down run stopping stuff does not excite fans, it allows him to get into his pressure package on third and medium/long.

This is a good example of Zimmer playing solid run defense from 2-high coverage shells. Here the Rams are running their staple play wide zone. They are in a 4-down over front which is typically what Zimmer likes to play. 

Joseph is playing a gap and a half from his 1T position, which is one of the keys to being able to play 2-high coverage. The importance of the nose tackle in this play can be thought of as a numbers game. With two safeties on the roof, the Vikings are playing with an even amount of defenders to the Rams blockers. This leaves one gap unaccounted for if each defender in the front takes one gap. With Joseph taking both the backside B gap and the backside A gap, Anthony Barr is able to shock the offensive lineman with a well placed strike and then shed to the front side A gap without as much to worry about since the backside A gap is covered up by Joseph. He does not make the stop, but the process here between the two is fun to watch. The ability to play solid run defense out of two high coverages can really elevate a defense to an elite level. In theory, the two high looks will limit explosive plays. Typically the run defense suffers from this idea, but Zimmer gets his guys coached up enough that they do not lose all that much stopping the run either. Easy to see why he has a top-10 defense nearly every single year.

It helps when you have a linebacker like Eric Kendricks that can bench press an offensive lineman off of his feet. Kendricks is the one here who really changes the numbers in favor of the Vikings. Another two high structure which means the Vikings are even in the box rather than plus one. To win back they force the cutback to where their All-Pro level defender is playing. Kendricks keeps his body clean with the violent shock and then is able to just make a tackle to end the play.

Now, the thing that no one seems to mention was the Vikings’ recent hire of Karl Scott, the former Alabama defensive backs coach. I think that this move in conjunction with the signings of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson were not only done to help shore up a lackluster interior but also to implement a new front that Zimmer has not used. 

Rather than Zimmer’s typical over and under 4-down fronts this front is a 3-down front. This front is none other than the tite front. The tite front has become one of the most popular fronts in college football (including Scott’s former employer Alabama) and has slowly matriculated its way upwards into the NFL. Last year, the number one defense in all of the NFL, the Los Angeles Rams, utilized a tite front as part of their defense. The tite front is essentially a 4i-0-4i combination from the interior of the defensive line with two off-ball LBs lined up behind them to create a light box.

Tite front

This front is typically paired with two high coverages (although one high is not uncommon like the image shown) which we have already seen Zimmer have a small affinity for. While this seems like the opportune front to run against, each of those three interior players are playing a gap and a half to steal back gaps. That combined with the placement of having 4is rather than 3Ts makes this a more imposing front than it seems. As shown in the image, a 4i is a defender playing on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle. While the movement of 3T to 4i does not seem like much, it is already difficult for guards to win their reach blocks against 3Ts, so moving that defender even further outwards makes that block extremely difficult. If I am just brainstorming here, I think that Zimmer will choose to walk Danielle Hunter down onto the line of scrimmage as a 7T/wide 9 as part of his tite front. Hunter is a very good run defender so there is no need to pull him off of the field when the Vikings would get into this front. Not to mention that he is one of their best players.

Pass Defense

With all of the run defense type of stuff out of the way, we can now get to the fun section of Zimmer’s defense. 

He always has one of the most impressive 3rd down defenses in the league. This is why he needs to play good run defense early so that he can get into this 3rd down package. During Zimmer’s tenure in Minnesota his defense has slightly changed, but what remains constant is exotic pressure designs, disguised coverages, and press technique from his coverage players. The idea behind this is that by the time the receivers break open from the jam, the pressure should get home.

Here is a great look at the strategy behind Zimmer’s defense. The Vikings line up in the Zimmer classic double mug look with both linebackers walked up into the A gaps. Detroit motions their outside wide receiver to the field into a stack. This allows that receiver to avoid the press from the defense, but the other two receivers get jammed. To go with the press jam, a safety rotates from on the line of scrimmage into a deep half look just before the snap. The quarterback is down from the pressure three seconds later. None of the receivers have broken open from the physical man coverage by that point. This is what makes Zimmer’s defense so dangerous to opposing offenses. Outside of the quarterback breaking the tackle, there is not much he could have done on this play. His wide receivers just haven’t won their routes in time.

Similar look here as the Vikings line up in a double mug, they jam the snot out of the wide receivers, disguise their coverage with a safety rolling back into a deep half at the snap, and then the quarterback is pressured by the time the receivers break open. The late movement from the safeties is also key to confusing the quarterback for just an extra moment. This confusion from the disguised coverage will help just in case the corners lose their battle a little bit earlier than anticipated. The entire game plan is to just have the coverage survive for about two and a half seconds for the pass rush to get home, which it does again on this play. They make that coverage survive mostly through physical man coverage and intricate disguises. Those late safety rotations are not all that common in the NFL, but Zimmer loves them.

It’s not always a 2-man coverage played behind the pass rush as shown here where the Vikings do not rotate that safety late. Instead on this play, they play man free with a 6-man rush. The back stays in to block which allows them to play this 6-man rush, but if he released the defender to that side would peel with him making it a 5-man rush. Again you can see some of the same principles of the Zimmer defense coming through with tight, physical man coverage behind a well-thought-out pressure design.

Here is just another example of what I think Zimmer wants to do defensively if he has the personnel for it. Late rotation from the safety to change a middle of the field closed look to a middle of the field open coverage, tight, physical man coverage, and a pressure design that hits home. It looks to me like a 2-man coverage with the linebackers adding on after the tight end and running back stay in to block. This pressure and coverage force an errant pass that sails well over the receiver’s head.

This does not mean that Zimmer will not play zone on 3rd down. He plays his zones about equal to his man coverages from these looks. It was very common to see both of the double mug linebackers dropping into coverage to play hook zones or curl flat zones. They still press jam on the outside to go with it, but then zone drop instead of man. This adds to the confusion of the defense because everything pre-snap could be a lie. These coverage disguises are going to be tough on Joe Burrow. Not only are they tough for the quarterback to deal with, but the pressure designs make it tough on the offensive line.

This pressure is not too crazy, but it ensures that Barr will have a one-on-one with the running back in pass protection. There is a 3-man twist from the linebacker overtop of the center and the two adjacent defenders to his left. This occupies the center, right guard, and right tackle who have to deal with this. Outside of the right tackle is Barr who is rushing off of the edge. He is rushing against the running back and if he had more time he may have gotten a hit on the quarterback, but his internal clock is sped up from seeing the rush and he throws an incomplete pass.

We saw the All-22 from this play earlier, but here is a better look at the pressure design that caused the incomplete pass. From the left guard to the right tackle this offensive line is dealing with the stunt in the middle. That even includes the running back getting involved in pass protection. What this does is single up an edge rusher against a tight end on one side and the left tackle against their best pass rusher on the other side. The left tackle gets destroyed by a spin move and the tight end can not hold up on the other side. This leads to not only an errant throw, but also a huge hit from both sides. Not the type of hit a team ever wants their quarterback to take.

This play shows Zimmer’s knowledge and understanding of NFL pass protection schemes. For the most part, NFL teams are going to mix slide and man protection in pass protection. There are full slides and 5-0/big on big situations, but on most downs, it is some type of slide combined with man protection. In the shotgun that slide is almost always away from the running back. This is in part due to that side of the protection having an extra man. Here is a 4-man slide to the right with the left tackle in man protection. What Zimmer does to exploit this is to move his safety late to the man side and have his linebacker loop and rush to that side as well. Doing this gives the defense four pass rushers against three pass protectors. This means there is a free rusher off of the edge. While the ball comes out, the quarterback still takes a hit and the pass falls incomplete.

For these final two clips, I wanted to look at one of Mike Zimmer’s oldest and yet most effective pressure designs. I still remember when he would use this in Cincinnati when he was the defensive coordinator. At the start of this clip, the quarterback and running back decide that the running back will pick up Eric Kendricks. This comes from the call of pointing him (Kendricks) out as the Mike. This sets the protection scheme and the center is in charge of picking up the other linebacker as they slide to the left. 

While they are dealing with all of that Harrison Smith sneaks his way to the opposite side of the Mike call. Now there are two bodies to block three pass rushers. Kendricks drops into coverage so the running back gets into his route. Smith decks the quarterback for a vicious sack off the edge. It takes a special running back in pass protection to be able to pick up that late moving blitzer off of the edge. Joe Mixon’s pass protection improvement will be tested often on third down in this game.

This play is similar except they send the guy that the running back is in charge of blocking on a blitz and drop the other linebacker. This leaves three bodies for three pass rushers, but the center has to make sure that he blocks the linebacker before he can pick up the man lined up outside of the guard. On a whiteboard, this blitz may be picked up but in a live game, there is no way. The tackle is stuck having to choose between giving up a free rusher off of the edge or to the inside. He correctly chooses the inside threat, but that leaves the safety off of the edge as a free rusher. The running back gets in the way of the blitzing linebacker, but not much else so the quarterback is not able to move away from the free rusher. Another successful pressure design takes advantage of offensive line protection schemes.

Not only is Zimmer’s scheme something truly impressive for the Vikings’ defense, but also they have some very talented players as well. There are three that really stick out in my opinion and I have already mentioned all three in this article. Danielle Hunter the defensive end, Eric Kendricks the linebacker, and Harrison Smith the safety.

An Explosive Edge Rusher

Danielle Hunter is 6-5, 252 pounds. He's almost the perfect size for a defensive end. He is an explosive, strong pass rusher who is a nightmare for any offensive lineman to block. His explosive get-off is one of the best in the entire NFL. Not just timing the snap count, but also the explosion in his first few steps. If the offensive tackle is a little late getting out of their stance for whatever reason they will lose that set. To go with his get-off he utilizes his hands well with rips, swipes, and chops to get linemen’s hands off of him. The last thing that jumps out about him on film is his herculean strength. He can toss offensive linemen on their butts during a pass rush. He utilized these abilities to become one of the premier pass rushers over the past three years. In 2018 he racked up 14.5 sacks which led to him being named a 2nd team all-pro and then in 2019 he repeated his statistical performance.

The first thing that I mentioned with Hunter after his size was his get-off. This is because according to many defensive line coaches out there the get-off is the most important ability for a pass rusher. It sets up other moves, leads to quick wins (like here), and if a pass rusher lacks a good get off they’re playing from behind. On this pass set, Hunter makes it a race between him and the right tackle to about 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage. He thinks that he can get beat the right tackle to that spot and he is right. In about two seconds Hunter not only beats the right tackle, but he also rips past him and punishes the quarterback. It may seem like Hunter is not moving that quickly because he has very long legs, but you can see by the result of this play that he is moving very fast. Hunter hardly even needs to put a move on the right tackle because he is so fast that he clearly beat him to the spot. Still, he uses a rip move and shows some nice bend to turn the corner to get this hit.

This play in particular makes me a little bit nervous for Riley Reiff’s matchup with Hunter on Sunday. Reiff is a very successful two hand puncher in pass protection which for the most part is not detrimental, but the two hand swipe move is a constant problem for two hand punchers. It’s almost like rock against scissors in paper-scissors-rock as a constant win for the defender. The problem for the puncher is that both of his hands are coming at the same time and at the same level to the defender. The swipe not only knocks both of the hands out of the way, but it also vaults the pass rusher forward and that momentum conversely pushes the offensive lineman the other way. Hunter specifically sets up his swipe with his elite get off which causes the right tackle to turn his hips and punch. You can see what I mean about the momentum if you just watch the right tackle. He stumbles and falls onto his face because he is trying to get back to block him, but the momentum just carries him in the wrong direction. Ends the pass rush with a very fun leap onto the quarterback for a sack.

Hunter not only showed the ability to use his hands in swipes and other moves but check out this pass rush where he grabs the tackle’s outside arm by the wrist. He looks like Steve Irwin grabbing a snake in just the right place to pick it up so it cannot bite him. Same idea here for Hunter. By grabbing the wrist of the offensive tackle it takes away the tackle’s ability to block the outside. With the right tackle’s ability to block outside neutered, Hunter easily bends around the edge for a sack. Pretty rare hand usage to be able to grab offensive linemen exactly where you need to in order to neutralize them.

Lastly, here is a look at Hunter’s extreme strength as a pass rusher. Hunter turns speed into power and then with one arm throws a professional athlete onto his backside. That is insane. The key to speed to power is that the pass rusher needs to sell speed to the offensive lineman. Then when the lineman buys the speed and turns their hips, the pass rusher slams into them with an immense force. Typically you are looking to knock them off balance or just push the pocket, but Hunter is so strong that he tosses the lineman onto his back.

All of these abilities and moves combine to create a nightmare pass rusher. The get-off to use speed and then the change-up of selling that speed to bully offensive lineman is a lethal combination. Then when the high level hand usage is added in as well it becomes a very frightening opponent for right tackles.

An Extraordinary Linebacker

Kendricks is a well rounded linebacker that can do everything. Whether that is blitzing the quarterback, stopping the run, or dropping into coverage, Kendricks does a phenomenal job at it. He ascended to an elite status in 2019 where he made his first pro bowl and was named as a First-Team All-Pro. In 2019 he was also tied for the league lead in passes broken up as a linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Demario Davis. That is some pretty elite company that Kendricks found himself tied to. Let’s watch some of Kendricks’ film to see what makes him so special.

The thing that stands out to me about Kendricks’ play is how patient he is. He is tracking the running back on this wide zone play and is essentially mirroring him as he approaches the line of scrimmage. Once the running back stops to cut to the backside, Kendricks also stops to make a play. He pierces through the offensive line to the backside A gap and pauses so that he can line up an attempted tackle. He lowers his body and dives into the ball carrier, wrapping his arms around him to bring him to the ground. He can bring down the ball carrier solo for no gain which is an impressive showing. I also want to point out the nice job that the nose tackle does on this play. He takes on the combo block and then latches onto the playside guard so that he cannot climb to the second level. This lets Kendricks play more free flowing to make this tackle.

Another stop from Kendricks against wide zone here. Again I think his patience shows on this clip. He never overruns this play while tracking the running back. He does kind of a little hop in place while waiting to see where the running back is going to go while tracking him. Once the running back commits to a cutback Kendricks sprints towards him to meet him in the hole. They have a massive collision with Kendricks making a beautiful profile tackle against him. He gets lower than the back, wraps him with his arms, and then starts to fire his feet before help arrives to finish him off. I think even if no one had come Kendricks would have taken the back down by himself.

I have no idea what the Eagles running back is doing here because he should be trying to pick up Kendricks in the B gap. Instead, he moves over towards the slide to pick up nobody. Kendricks does a great job to quickly get to the quarterback and bring him down before the back knows that he made a mistake. Most of Kendricks’ pressure and sacks have come from Zimmer’s scheme rather than Kendricks’ ability to beat pass protectors one on one, however, he does have the high level athleticism and smarts to execute everything asked of him.

Kendricks ability to play coverage is his best ability despite high level play elsewhere. Like I mentioned earlier he was tied for the league lead in pass breakups from the linebacker position. Here you can see his patience and processing shine to get an interception. Dallas is running a play action pass with some type of over route from the tight end to get in between the safeties and linebackers. Every NFL team has a plethora of these plays that are designed specifically to attack linebackers. The play action pulls the linebacker in and then the quarterback can just throw it over their head to the over route. However, that play does not work here because while Kendricks did get sucked in by the play action he quickly drops into depth. The quarterback glances outside towards the go ball which gives Kendricks just enough time to get into position. He reads the quarterback’s eyes and waits for his hands to separate off of the ball. Once the quarterback’s hands separate and the ball is thrown Kendricks leaps into the air with his arms outstretched to make the interception. Not only was this great coverage from him to get into the passing window, but it was also a fantastic catch for the interception.

For the last play highlighting Kendricks, I chose probably his most impressive zone drop. It’s play action that freezes him for just a moment. The thought for the 49ers here is that they will freeze him and throw it where he was supposed to be. After freezing, Kendricks gains depth and then begins to melt with the quarterback’s eyes. This helps him get near the window of the throw. Once the quarterback separates his hands to make this throw, Kendricks makes a break on the ball. To intercept this ball Kendricks makes a very impressive jump into the air stretching out his arms as far as possible. It nearly knocks him off balance, but he can recover and return the ball for a short gain. The way he can read a quarterback and make plays on the ball is uncanny. He is one of the best coverage linebackers in the entire NFL.

Zimmer’s Chess Piece

Finally, let’s watch some of Harrison Smith who is the defender utilized the most interestingly by the Vikings. He has also had the most decorated career for the Vikings defense with five consecutive Pro Bowl nods including one season where he was named a First-Team All-Pro. Smith is not used as a traditional single high safety, nor is he just a box safety. He’s a rover who can play both of those spots along with the slot and more. 

He is the key to the Vikings’ disguised coverages, similar to how Reggie Nelson was used in Cincinnati with Mike Zimmer.

Not only does Smith disguise whether he is blitzing or dropping, but he also disguises where he will be blitzing from. This creates a ton of confusion along the offensive line who typically will have their protection in before he moves like this. This bear front from the defense is matched by the offense with a 5-0 or big on big call. What that means is that each offensive lineman is matched up one-on-one with the defensive lineman to their gap. The running back is in charge of the MIKE on this play. If the pre snap picture remained static, this protection is a fine call. Smith and Kendricks are outside of the tackles and there should be plenty of time for the quarterback to get to his hot read if they both come. Instead, they both come inside and time up the snap perfectly. This protection is absolutely destroyed because an athletic free runner is coming down the pipe. Leads to a very easy sack for Smith and a good disguise from him and Kendricks on this play.

To go with his ability to disguise and move around sometimes he has to just do what it looks like he is doing. Here he is pressed up against the line of scrimmage looking to pass rush. Instead of dropping or changing where he is coming from, he just rushes the passer from that spot. The quarterback never accounted for him off of the edge and ended up taking a sack. Seemed like the quarterback was too focused on everything happening inside to see what was going on with Smith outside. The offensive line and running back combine to pick this up relatively well. The last rusher off of the outside is the quarterback’s responsibility on this play, but he never accounts for him. Shows one of the many ways Zimmer’s defense is tough for young quarterbacks.

This play in specific happens pretty frequently. If you scroll back up to the section on Zimmer’s defense you will see a couple of clips of this same thing. It is common to look for defenses to look like a two high coverage pre snap and then roll into a single high coverage. Whether that is some type of cover 3 buzz or cover 1 robber. What is uncommon is looking like a single high coverage and then rolling a safety back into a two high coverage. Not only does Smith do that here, but he does it from the line of scrimmage. Smith is exceptional at disguising his deep coverages like this play. This is very frustrating for the quarterback to deal with and can often lead to sacks (like here) or interceptions. This in specific is something Zimmer did often with Reggie Nelson with great success. It is a very confusing disguise for quarterbacks and another reason that Zimmer is the king of 3rd down defense.

Lastly, we can take a peek at Smith’s ability to play coverage. Similar to that Kendricks play against the 49ers, Smith starts by getting frozen by the play action. From there he melts with the quarterback’s eyes as he drops back. Then when the ball is thrown he has the ability to make an athletic diving interception. A very impressive ability from Smith that works well with everything else that he does.

Overall Smith is an intelligent, athletic safety who can do everything asked of him. He is the key to the disguises in the Vikings’ defensive scheme. He is a rare player that truly allows the Vikings’ defense to thrive on third downs.

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