When Teddy Bridgewater went down with a devastating knee injury during the preseason, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t panic. The Vikings were expected to take a step forward this season with Bridgewater in his third year under center and losing him for the season was a huge blow, but Zimmer remained confident in the team he’s built in Minnesota.
"We have a good team. We have a good defense,” Zimmer said. “Our offensive line is much better. We have good receivers, maybe the best running back in the NFL. So this is about a team and us trying to figure out how to win football games."
Week 1 is a small sample size, but the Vikings found an approach that worked when they took down the Tennessee Titans, 25-16, on the road. And it should be the plan they follow all season, including Sunday night when they host the Green Bay Packers.
It starts, and ends, with the defense
The Vikings’ defense was wholly responsible for the win over the Titans. The offense couldn’t get anything going — including Adrian Peterson, who rushed for just 31 yards on 19 carries — and Minnesota trailed 10-0 at the half.
Minnesota had to adjust, and that wasn’t a problem for Mike Zimmer. Everson Griffen said Zimmer had his players focus on the details of their defense.
“We went back to the basics of our defense and just played our style of ball,” Griffen said. “We never got stressed out. We knew they were giving us a lot of (trick) plays, and we just settled in.”
The defense did adjust after halftime. On six possessions in the second half, the Titans went three-and-out three times, had a pick-six and ended two other drives on Marcus Mariota fumbles. The only successful drive of the half resulted in a touchdown with just 32 seconds left in the game.
The Titans were still able to move the chains in the second half in the no huddle offense, but Minnesota’s defense was opportunistic enough to stymie those efforts by forcing turnovers.
Terence Newman played for Zimmer when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys and also with the Cincinnati Bengals, so he’s well-versed in Zimmer’s talent for understanding how to make adjustments.
“He understands the game at a depth,” Newman said, “because he spent so much time as a defensive coordinator, a defensive coach, that he understands kind of what offenses do and what’s best to attack an offense.”
Minnesota’s opponents will continue to sell out to stop Peterson through the rest of the season. Regardless of whether Shaun Hill or Sam Bradford — though reports have said it’ll be Bradford in Week 2 — is under center, the defense is going to have to carry the team all season long.
Disrupting the quarterback is key
That’s especially true if they want to make the postseason in a division where the Vikings have to face off against one of the best quarterbacks in the league, Aaron Rodgers, twice each season.
As daunting as that may seem for the Vikings, Zimmer has been particularly effective against Rodgers both as a coordinator and a head coach.
The Packers have won three of the last four meetings between these two teams, but Rodgers is much less productive against Zimmer-coached defenses. When Rodgers and the Packers faced the Bengals during Zimmer’s stint as Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, the Bengals won both matchups, one in 2009 and one in 2013.
With Zimmer in the head coach role, the Vikings are 1-3 against the Packers over the past two seasons. The impact Zimmer’s defenses had on Rodgers individually, though, show in his stat line.
Rodgers has averaged a 65.1 completion percentage over his career, but his average against Mike Zimmer’s defenses is just 59.2. Compared to his career stats, Rodgers has taken more sacks against Zimmer’s defenses and his quarterback rating is just 89.3 compared to 104.5 over his career. Rodgers has never thrown for over 300 yards in any single game against a Zimmer defense.
“What he's done with the 'seven-up' package has changed the game,” Rodgers said, via ESPN’s Rob Demovsky. “A lot of teams have tried to replicate that, but not to the same success or intricacies as Coach Zimmer has. You've got to give him credit for that."
Zimmer technically runs a 4-3 defense in Minnesota, but he’ll often have seven or eight players at the line of scrimmage to disguise which ones will come at the quarterback and which will drop into coverage. It presents a real challenge for quarterbacks, even one who reads defenses as well as Rodgers generally does.
The approach paid off against the Titans, with Minnesota landing two sacks on Marcus Mariota. Pressure forced the pick-six Mariota threw, too. One area in which Rodgers’ performance against Zimmer’s defenses is on par with his career average is interceptions, and creating takeaways is going to be key for the Vikings this season.
The defense was more than opportunistic against Tennessee. Fourteen of Minnesota’s 25 points against the Titans came off of turnovers. Linebacker Eric Kendricks returned an interception 77 yards for a touchdown, and a scoop-and-score fumble recovery by defensive end Danielle Hunter was the second defensive touchdown of the day.
Griffen led the team in sacks last season with 10.5, and his pressure on Mariota helped force the interception Kendricks ran back for a score. Linval Joseph is disruptive from the interior line, and players like Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr should be able to help pressure opposing quarterbacks this season.
In the secondary, players like Newman and Harrison Smith should be able to create some interceptions, and the team will need the entire defense to be opportunistic with fumbles.
Zimmer connects with his players
The Vikings’ defense has improved dramatically since Zimmer took over two years ago. Minnesota was 11th in the league in 2014 for points allowed per game, and ranked fifth in 2015 with just 18.9 points per game. In 2013, before Zimmer was hired to replace Leslie Frazier, the Vikings ranked dead last in the league, allowing an average of 30 points per game.
Last season, their defense was good, but not quite great. They were middle of the pack for yards allowed per game and turnovers, but landed in the top 10 for sacks, which was a sign that the defense was trending in the right direction.
The team has had very little turnover on the roster during Zimmer’s tenure. More than half of the players currently on the roster have been in Minnesota since Zimmer was hired. Forty-three of the 53 men on the active roster were with the Vikings last season.
This continuity means that players on both sides of the ball understand and trust Zimmer’s approach.
“He’s more comfortable with his players, and he knows how to get us going,” Captain Munnerlyn said.
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux played for Zimmer when Zimmer was the defensive coordinator in Atlanta during Bobby Petrino’s short-lived, tumultuous stint as Atlanta’s head coach.
Babineaux said he understands exactly why Zimmer feels so confident in his defense and his team’s ability to weather this storm. He said that Zimmer’s focus on his team’s preparation was always key.
“It was really about us and what we did,” Babineaux said. “So he just wanted to make sure whatever details — small details — that we’d fine-tune them and make sure that we’re doing it and executing it on Sundays.”
The Vikings’ chances of repeating as NFC North champions took a hit when Bridgewater tore his ACL, but Zimmer had a plan all along. If the defense can pressure opposing quarterbacks and create turnovers, not to mention limit opponents’ ability to score the way it did last season and against Tennessee, this team still has a shot to make some noise throughout the season and beyond.