A Vikings defense with new faces will also be wired differently this season. Senior defensive assistant Dom Capers’ influence will be seen through different coverages and blitzes, helping to evolve a well-established playbook under coach Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer has turned to Capers, the 70-year-old former Packers defensive coordinator entering his 33rd season as an NFL coach, for fresh ideas. Since being hired in February, Capers has taken some young defensive backs under his wing while adding ways for Zimmer’s defenses to attack on Sundays.
“Different ideas to affect the quarterback,” Zimmer said, “because really that’s what we’re trying to do. Figure out ways to affect the quarterback, whether that’s with pressure or coverage.”
Generally, the Vikings have covered and pressured well under Zimmer, with five consecutive seasons as a top-10 scoring defense, but those ideas can risk becoming stale. Zimmer sought Capers as a veteran addition after two longtime defensive assistants, coordinator George Edwards and defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, left this offseason. Zimmer made a similar move before last season by bringing in Gary Kubiak as an offensive assistant.
According to players, Zimmer has kept an open mind in evolving the defense with Capers, who said new challenges fulfill him.
“I still enjoy it,” Capers said. “If I ever reach a point that I don’t enjoy the competitiveness of trying to get guys ready to play and go out and compete, I don’t know how you replace those three hours on Sunday.”
A combined 24 years of NFL head coaching experience lead to many “war stories” passed around among Zimmer, Kubiak and Capers, generating mutual respect. Capers admitted to copying from Zimmer’s defenses in the past, which includes four years overlapping in the NFC North.
But Capers’ role floats above the nuances of X’s and O’s and to the mentorship of many young defensive backs, including working press technique and eye placement in practices with rookie corners Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler.
From their NFL battles, Kubiak remembers Capers having a way of scheming up trouble for offenses on obvious passing downs, and that may be where the Vikings defense most feels his influence. Under Capers, the Packers defense was inconsistent but ranked in the top 10 in interceptions during seven of his nine seasons.
His extensive experience running a 3-4 front, which the Vikings dabbled with last season using linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive end Danielle Hunter as the bookends, is another way Capers could help expand the playbook.
“Some of the schemes that we may run may reflect some stuff that he’s done in the past,” Barr said. “Zim has things and does things the way he likes, but he’s definitely been open to changing things and tweaking things here and there as the years have gone on, especially with people who he respects, and Dom Capers is one of those guys.”
Capers has established a presence in the defensive backs room, in part because the Vikings appear likely to field at least one rookie cornerback in the often-used nickel defense. Judging whether Gladney and Dantzler are ready without a preseason is an unprecedented task, which can lead to limited defensive schemes early in the season.
“Especially with going into the first game in a shortened training camp, ‘What can they handle going forward?’ ” Zimmer said. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got some really smart guys that pick stuff up and are able to change and adapt really quick.”
This Vikings defense will not lack for veteran input from players or coaches, but the critical part, as Capers said in echoing Zimmer, is preparing the many youngsters despite the limitations presented by COVID-19 concerns.
“They always say that if you stay in a business long enough, you’ll see everything,” Capers said. “But that’s what keeps people in this business — a new challenge. This is certainly a new challenge for all of us.”