In recent years, the Vikings have become well-known for their stout defenses, and that trend has directly coincided with the presence of head coach and defensive play-caller Mike Zimmer. Cowboys fans know plenty about Zimmer, though. He began his professional coaching career here, and spent 13 seasons with America’s Team, including the final seven seasons as defensive coordinator.
Impressive results on defense have followed Zimmer everywhere, with the lone exception being his single season as the Falcons defensive coordinator, a year in which the head coach resigned midway through the year to take the job at Arkansas. Zimmer has since been highly critical of said coach and the negative effect he had on that Falcons team.
But aside from that debacle of a year in Atlanta, Zimmer has built a really strong history of defense. It’s what got him the Vikings job back in 2014, and his team has consistently been solid on that side of the ball ever since. In his six seasons as head coach prior to this year, the Vikings have only finished outside of the top ten in defensive DVOA twice; that was Zimmer’s first and second seasons on the job, in which they finished 23rd and 15th, respectively. Ever since then, they’ve consistently been one of the league’s ten most efficient defenses.
And coincidentally enough, the Vikings currently rank tenth in defensive DVOA, which is actually a really impressive thing to say. A few weeks ago, this defense was 26th in the league, but they’ve climbed up the leaderboard pretty quickly. That’s because the Vikings underwent a facelift on defense in what turned out to be a shortened offseason. It began when George Edwards, who had been the Vikings defensive coordinator and Zimmer’s right-hand man since he took the job in 2014, left the team. Edwards ended up in Dallas, coincidentally, and Zimmer promoted both defensive line coach Andre Patterson and linebackers coach Adam Zimmer to co-defensive coordinators, while Zimmer continued to call plays.
Then, the Vikings lost nearly half of their defensive starters from last year. On the defensive line, Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph went elsewhere in free agency, as did their top three cornerbacks - Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackensie Alexander - forcing a hard reset in the secondary. Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd - all of whom had played reserve roles last year for Minnesota - were expected to be in the mix, and the Vikings also drafted Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler to help out.
The results were not pretty. It didn’t help that star edge rusher Danielle Hunter’s season was ended before it began with a neck injury, or that star linebacker Anthony Barr went on the injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle in just the second game of the year. But through the first six games, this rebuilt secondary was allowing over 286 passing yards a game. They used their bye week to get the defensive backs a little more comfortable in their roles, and the Vikings’ three-game winning streak since then has largely come on the heels of an improved pass defense; they’re now allowing just 230 passing yards a game, a significant improvement.
Part of that involves Boyd, a seventh-round rookie last year, locking down a starting role. Both Gladney and Dantzler have been consistent starters in this secondary to begin their rookie years (although Dantzler has missed a few games with minor injuries), but veterans Hill and Hughes were getting a lot of time as well. Both are now on the injured reserve, which has led to Boyd starting the last two weeks. While Boyd has (predictably) been thrown at a lot in those two starts, he’s showcased really good tracking in coverage and consistent wrap-up tackling, not allowing big plays on short completions.
And that’s a major tenet of Zimmer’s defensive philosophy. Operating out of a 4-3 base, Zimmer’s defenses use a lot of split safety looks in coverage. With two rangy safeties in Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, Zimmer has the ability to let his cornerbacks play very tight, aggressive man coverage knowing they have help over the top. As for the defensive front, Zimmer doesn’t really blitz much but instead creates a lot of pressure with his unique looks. One big part of his scheme is the split mug front, which I broke down back when Edwards joined the Cowboys staff, and something that Dallas has started using with more regularity (and success!) in the last few games.
Even with the creativity that’s inherent to Zimmer’s scheme, Minnesota has had trouble creating pressure this year. No Griffen or Hunter has really hamstrung this pass rush, and losing Barr didn’t help either. Their sack leader is Yannick Ngakoue, who they traded away during the bye week. Since then, they’ve been getting pressure off the edge from Ifeadi Odenigbo and rookie DJ Wonnum, while Eric Wilson - who became a starter after Barr’s injury - has tallied three sacks and eight pressures as a blitzer.
The skinny on this Vikings defense is that it’s filled with a bunch of players that aren’t used to starting duties, but they’ve grown into it as the season has progressed. Zimmer may very well be one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, and that’s been a big reason for this unit’s vast improvement recently. Regardless of who the Cowboys play at quarterback, this will be a challenge for the offense, and they’ll have to put up another performance like they did against Pittsburgh to have a chance in this game.