When Mike Zimmer starts the 2020 season, only Bud Grant and Dennis Green will have coached the Vikings longer than him.
The fact is that he was hired because the Wilf family and the Vikings front office believed he could turn the team into a dominant defensive club, and Zimmer has done just that.
Since Zimmer took over as coach in 2014, the Vikings rank No. 2 in the NFL in points against with 1,848, trailing only the New England Patriots.
But even Zimmer would admit that the Vikings defense struggled a bit during a 2019 season that saw them reach the postseason for the third time in his tenure, win a playoff game at New Orleans and ultimately fall at San Francisco to a 49ers team that should have won the Super Bowl.
If you want to know how a defense can rank fifth in the NFL in points against, like the Vikings did in 2019, and still need big changes, consider that they had five games in which they gave up 140 rushing yards or more, and they lost all five games.
That included giving up 184 rushing yards to the Packers in a Week 16 loss at home and 144 yards in a Week 2 loss at Green Bay.
The trend continued in the playoffs, when the 49ers ran for 186 yards and completely dominated the Vikings defense in a 27-10 victory.
Overall, the Vikings defense ranked 14th in the NFL in 2019, tied for the worst mark in Zimmer’s tenure.
Coaching changes needed
The fact is that an average season on defense isn’t going to be good enough for the Vikings to succeed.
That’s why Zimmer promoted Adam Zimmer, his son and the Vikings linebackers coach, and Andre Patterson, the defensive line coach who first coached with Mike Zimmer in 1998 at Weber State, to co-defensive coordinators.
On top of those moves, Zimmer also brought in Dom Capers to serve as a defensive consultant in a similar role to what Gary Kubiak had last season with the offense.
But the way to know that Zimmer really felt there needed to be changes was that he didn’t renew the contract of George Edwards, who had served as Vikings defensive coordinator since Zimmer took over as coach.
And while Edwards was a big part of the defense’s success — including when the Vikings ranked No. 1 in both total defense and scoring defense in 2017 — Zimmer said the club needed some new ideas.
“We have to do better than what we did. We had some good games and we had some games where we weren’t probably up to our standards,” Zimmer said. “I think the biggest thing is that we all get in here, roll up our sleeves, get back to work and see where we can improve. That’s part of the reason why I brought Dom in here and part of the reason why Adam and Andre are taking charge in the room and I can try to continue to get good coaches.”
Game plan will be consistent
Still, Zimmer didn’t want to completely rebuild the defense, and having consistency with the defensive coaches will help the team heading into the 2020 season.
“Both of those guys do a great job. Adam has been coaching for 14 years in the NFL and Andre has been with me most of my career,” Zimmer said. “I just felt like if we could combine those guys and still have them coach their same positions that they coach, because the position players they’ve had have all played really well, I just feel like if the way we’ve got it set up now, I thought it would be the best of both worlds.
“The one thing that, because I have other duties I have to do, the one thing that has been really good is these guys don’t wait for me, they just go out there and get it done.”
Building his kind of staff
Heading into the NFL offseason, Zimmer has to feel good about this staff. Despite Kevin Stefanski’s departure to become coach of the Cleveland Browns, he kept the offensive game plan the same by getting Kubiak to stay on as offensive coordinator and promoting defensive coaches from the staff.
And the fact is, Zimmer said he doesn’t want to look back now that he has made the decisions and built this staff. “I have been very fortunate that I have a lot of good people around me,” he said. “I continue to try to add people around me like Gary Kubiak and Dom Capers and I have had great people in the front office with [General Manager] Rick [Spielman] and [Executive Vice President of Football Operations] Rob [Brzezinski] and [assistant GM] George [Paton], and the ownership has been great with me and the fans have been great.
“We have been fortunate that we have played decent, but at the end of the day we’re looking forward and not trying to look back at the last seven years. We still have a lot of things we haven’t accomplished yet that we need to accomplish. That is kind of our focus now, it’s not so much looking back. It has gone fast, faster than I thought, but it has been fun.”
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