The Vikings will return to the 3-4 defense this fall for the first time since the 1980s, led by a man whose time in the Vikings-Packers rivalry dates back to Antonio Freeman's "Monday Night Miracle" in the old NFC Central division.
Everything has come full circle in Minnesota, where Ed Donatell — who presided over a 4-3 scheme in Green Bay from 2000-03 — is in charge of implementing one of the NFL's hottest schemes this fall. Vic Fangio popularized the version of the 3-4 that's swept across the league, frustrating quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers by making them throw underneath, and Donatell is back in the NFC North after spending much of the past decade working with Fangio, the former 49ers and Bears defensive coordinator who brought Donatell to Denver when he became the Broncos' head coach in 2019.
The scheme Donatell brings to Minnesota has become one of the league's most popular, thanks to the success of coaches like Fangio and former Rams defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, O'Connell's good friend who became the Chargers' head coach last season. The Packers hired Joe Barry — Staley's linebackers coach with the Rams — to put in their own version of the defense last year.
"There's a reason for [the popularity]," Donatell said. "It's really the RPOs [run-pass options]. Guys, when they're standing up, can see more — all the jet flying motion so there's many things happening to it. The edges of your defense, those guys have to have information. When their hands [are] in the dirt and they're down low, they don't see those things and it makes it difficult to play."
In the secondary, teams can start out of two-safety looks, denying quarterbacks the opportunity to throw downfield or making last-second changes to the coverage shell that force passers to hesitate. The biggest changes, though, will come up front, where players like Danielle Hunter will go from 4-3 defensive ends to 3-4 edge rushers that are sometimes tasked with forcing runs back inside and are often able to pursue quarterbacks from a standing position.
"[Outside linebackers coach] Mike Smith does a great job coaching our edges, and it's a craft. It's a doggone craft," Donatell said. "It's easy to say, 'Setting the edge,' but there's so much information that goes into it, so much toughness, so much ruggedness, so much transition to rush, when to, when not to, all these things coming to you on the edge. The other thing that makes it tough is, a lot of guys who've played that position are 4-3 ends in college, so when they've got to come up, there's a year usually for a transition involved in that. So that's a tough one. The rest of the stuff is similar."
Za'Darius Smith, who played the position for Mike Smith in Green Bay, "has a head start on everybody," Donatell said, but the rest of the group — starting with Hunter — can learn on the job.
"If you can rush the passer and you can play with physicality, we're going to teach you," he said. "If you have that stuff, those are rare qualities. We have the teachers to get it done, and we're confident."