Earlier this year, as he reflected on the Vikings' 2020 season, Mike Zimmer was "down in the dumps," to use his own words.
His team had finished 7-9 — his first losing record since his debut season as head coach in 2014 — and missed the playoffs. What made that reflection even more painful was that the Vikings' defense was the primary culprit for their poor season. The offense held up their end of the bargain, for the most part, but a defense ravaged by departures and injuries looked nothing like the top-tier units Zimmer had consistently put out over the previous five years.
Zimmer is known as a defensive mastermind. He takes great pride in that side of that ball, so he was very disappointed with what he saw in 2020. The Vikings finished 29th in scoring defense and 27th in total defense (yards allowed per game). Yes, he was working with a lot of rookies and backups, but Zimmer was upset that he couldn't do more with those pieces.
And as he looked ahead to the upcoming offseason, he was worried that the personnel on defense wasn't going to get much better due to the Vikings' precarious salary cap situation.
"When we looked at the defense after the season and evaluated it, it was pretty barren in there," Zimmer said on Monday in his first press conference since last season ended. "So we had to address that. Honestly, at the end of the season, I was kind of down in the dumps when I kept looking at the depth chart and knowing what kind of salary cap space we had."
Fast forward a few months, and Zimmer has an entirely new outlook. The Vikings have done more in free agency to fix their defense than he could've ever imagined was possible.
Their big prize was defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who will team up with 2020 opt-out Michael Pierce to stuff the run and free up space for Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr to make plays. They signed potential future Hall of Fame corner Patrick Peterson, which Zimmer called a "really lucky break" that was initiated by Peterson, not the team. They brought back two of the players who left in free agency last offseason in Stephen Weatherly and Mackensie Alexander. And most recently, they landed safety Xavier Woods, a player Zimmer is really enthusiastic about.
"Rob [Brzezinski] and Rick [Spielman] have done an unbelievable job doing that," Zimmer said. "They’ve gotten me rejuvenated with the guys that they’ve brought in, and then you’ve got guys like Anthony Barr who, he decides to restructure his contract because he wants to be here, you’ve got guys like Stephen Weatherly and Mackensie and a lot of these other guys that really want to be here. We’ve added Hunter, Pierce, Barr, who missed the whole year [in 2020], Tomlinson, Peterson. I mean, it’s going to look completely different when we get out there, and I’m excited about the whole crew."
Excitement was a theme of the press conference. The Vikings' eighth-year head coach was visibly fired up by everything that has happened — and will continue to happen — this offseason.
That doesn't just apply to the players the team has brought in and the continuing work to be done on adding pieces in free agency and the NFL draft. Zimmer also made it clear that he plans to switch some things up on defense in terms of scheme, strategy, and personnel groupings. He and the rest of his defensive coaching staff are hard at work with that, and it's something he's extremely passionate about.
"We’ve had some of the best meetings that I’ve had in eight years, probably," Zimmer said. "We’re dissecting every little thing that we do, going through everything with a fine-tooth comb. I’ve been really impressed with the coaches that are in there but also, the offenses have changed so much in the last four or five years, it’s time that we need to do some things differently and change and adapt. I’m actually really excited, I can’t wait to get back on the field with the players and get them going."
We'll have to wait until the fall to see what those changes actually look like, but Zimmer did give some hints. It seems like preparation is an area of focus. He wants the defense to be ready for everything that offenses will throw at them throughout the course of a season.
"The number one thing that we want to do on defense is we want to play fast," Zimmer said. "We want to play physical. We don’t want to be thinking. And the offenses lately have been getting us to think because we’ve had to adjust here and adjust there and do this and do that, and some of these things [are] just too hard to implement during the season. Some of it is big changes and some of it is minor tweaks."
After last year, where everything was virtual, Zimmer is relishing and taking advantage of the opportunity to be together will his full defensive coaching staff in person at TCO Performance Center.
"These meetings that we’ve had, if we were in 12 different cities and doing this on a Zoom meeting, we couldn’t get this done. We’re sitting in the room. We’re watching tape together. We’re going over everything. We get on the blackboard, or whiteboard now, and talk about, ‘OK, if they do this, how do we do this? What if they line up and do this?’ All the different scenarios that are going through our minds that we don’t have to try to get done in three days, getting ready for a game."
Zimmer doesn't want to ever have a repeat of last season's defensive performance. When that group takes the field this fall, not only will there be a bunch of faces who weren't out there in 2020, but there might be some different looks as well, whether that's in the form of packages, coverage shells, blitzes — whatever it may be.
We'll find out soon enough. If everything goes to plan, the Vikings might just get back to having a top-five defense in the league, which Zimmer hopes can combine with a talented offense and result in a return to the postseason.
Don't panic about the offense yet
I know what you're probably thinking, and I can't blame you. "Sure, that's all well and good about the defense, but what about the offense?"
Here's what Zimmer had to say about that:
"Our offense has been pretty darn good. They’re sixth in the league last year [author's note: I'm not sure what metric he's referring to, but they were top 10 in most of them]. We do have some holes, yeah, that we’ll fill, but we’ve still got time to do that. There’s still a lot of players out there right now and there will be some out there in the draft."
That's the key, in my opinion. Right now, the Vikings have some major needs on offense, none greater than the offensive line. They also need a third receiver and could use depth at quarterback, running back, and tight end. But they still have some cap space and ten draft picks to use. Don't panic just because they brought Dakota Dozier back (unless he winds up starting). There's still a lot of work to be done, and I'd assume the offense will be their focus going forward.
Other notable quotes from Zimmer's presser
- On who replaces Riley Reiff: "At this point we've got Rashod Hill back, we've got [Oli] Udoh back, we've got [Brian] O'Neill back, we've got [Ezra] Cleveland. So we'll be able to take care of those situations. All of those guys are good players and we'll continue to figure it out and go from there."
- On Xavier Woods: "I talked to him on the phone before he signed, obviously, and I just told him that this is going to be a good situation for him here. The things that we do are things he’s done before. Areas how we can use him in addition to Harrison [Smith]. I watch all the tapes and I think he’s got another level to go to. I think he’s also got a chip on his shoulder as well. So I like that about guys. I like bringing in guys when other people say they’re probably not good enough somewhere else."
- On what position Ezra Cleveland will play: "Well right now he’s right guard but all those things can change depending on what happens the rest of the way in free agency and what else happens in the draft. We don’t know what’s going to happen in those places and obviously there’s other positions that we can draft. I’m sure at some point we’re going to try and address all those things. I think what we’ve done in free agency so far has allowed us to be able to take the best player available, wherever he is."
- On Danielle Hunter's status: “Well, I know he’s talked to Andre [Patterson]. I have not talked to him. He’s been sending back videos of his workouts, and they’re very, very impressive. So we’re excited to get him back on the field. He’s a great team guy, he’s a terrific player, and he’s one of the best people that I’ve been around in professional football."
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