How the Vikings' defense will change under new coordinator
The Vikings are throwing back to the 1980s — the last time Minnesota's defense featured three down linemen and four linebackers — under a new coordinator.
New defensive coordinator Ed Donatell brings a different look to the Vikings as the 3-4 base defense can morph into a variety of fronts, mainly by turning the old 4-3 defensive ends into outside linebackers. The new scheme has the benefit of flexibility, so the new defense won't always appear like it does below.
New 3-4 defense
The Donatell era: Donatell will anchor his defense with three down linemen and four linebackers. In this scheme, the pass-rush responsibility shifts to the linebackers while the down linemen are expected to take up blocks. When the ball is snapped, this scheme creates uncertainty for the offense as it's unclear which outside linebacker could become the fourth pass rusher and which outside linebacker could drop into coverage. To work effectively, the 3-4 requires hyper-athletic outside linebackers who can do it all — rush the passer, stop the run and drop into pass coverage — and a big, block-absorbing nose tackle.
Old 4-3 defense
The Zimmer era Former Vikings coach Mike Zimmer favored this scheme, which uses four down linemen and three linebackers. The pass rush mostly comes from the front four, while the linebackers plug gaps in the run game and cover the pass. With an extra lineman on the field, the 4-3 front can be more bulk than finesse. It was the NFL's main defensive formation in early eras, before athletic ball carriers created the need for an extra linebacker on the field.
Front three down linemen
Position: Defensive end
A 2016 third-round pick by the Bears, and then-coaches Vic Fangio and Donatell, Bullard reunited with Donatell in June. He impressed with some strong moments in the preseason, and could start after Armon Watts was released. He's made 15 starts in 70 games, mostly for 3-4 fronts in Chicago and Arizona.
Position: Nose tackle
Phillips, the former Bills defensive tackle who signed in free agency, fills a big role aligning directly over center where he'll be at his best if he forces the offense to double team him with a guard.
Old position: Defensive tackle
New position: Defensive end
Tomlinson will shift slightly outside, aligning over offensive tackles instead of guards like he did in the previous 4-3 defense. Depending on the assignment of the edge rusher next to him and how the offensive line shifts, Tomlinson could still be working against a tackle or a guard on any given play.
Middle four linebackers
Old position: Defensive end
New position: Edge/outside linebacker
In his seventh NFL season, Hunter will be a stand-up linebacker as opposed to a hand-in-the-dirt defensive end. Changes only start there. He'll have a lot more on his mind as he thinks through coverage responsibilities and how they're affected by what the offense is doing.
Position: Edge/outside linebacker
Both Hunter and Smith — the ex-Packers star edge rusher who signed with the Vikings in free agency this spring — will be the teeth of Minnesota's pass rush. They've been seen in practices moving around the formation, sometimes on the same side of the line, to threaten opposing blocking schemes in varied ways.
Position: Inside linebacker
After seven years manning the middle of the 4-3 defense, Kendricks will now share the middle of the field with another linebacker. He should continue to be involved in varied blitz schemes that can originate from this new front.
Position: Inside linebacker
Hicks, the former Cardinals linebacker who signed in free agency, is familiar with this scheme after starting in it for Arizona. He'll pair with Kendricks in the middle, where the Vikings can deploy varied pass coverages.
Experience with both alignments
Ed Donatell has been a defensive coordinator with three teams prior to the Vikingss, and had modest success running both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. * Tie