Even after knowing about Brian Robison’s new haircut, it’s a little weird seeing it in person after getting use to it trailing behind him for so many years. It’s not unusual to see the well-coiffed defensive end braving something new. After switching to a new defensive scheme under a new head coach, Robison is confident the team will improve.

“We have high expectations for the team this year and I feel like we can get a lot done this year,” he said. “I think we can [make a long run into the playoffs. You go and look at the roster, we have a lot of talent, we’re a young team.”

Those expectations are not unusual for the Vikings, however, who have been picked by a number of teams as dark horses to make the playoffs and challenge for the NFC North. That’s not where the optimism comes from, though. Those external source of optimism haven’t made their way into the meeting rooms or practice field.

“We don’t really know what’s going on externally, we’re trying to keep everything inside the building trying to worry about what we need to get done to be successful this year.”

That sort of confidence doesn’t come without a commitment to work, however. “Talking about it is one thing, but actually doing it on the field is another,” he emphasized. “At the end of the day, what you see on paper is only what you see on paper. You have to put it on tape, you have to put it on the field. We’re just going to take it one play at a time. We’ll see how we’ll progress.”

Even getting on to the field as early as possible was a goal for Robison, who suffered a partial pectoral tear early in the offseason.

“I was telling the guys, it’s funny when you’re not able to play football, you wanna do everything you can to be back on the field. A lot of times you come out here and start practicing and the heat and everything—augh, go back to rehab—but a bottom line is you never wanna do that rehab because you’re always looking over at the field and seeing the guys playing and you miss that camaraderie and competitiveness, so I’m just excited to get back.

“You’ve got to embrace the suck.”

That’s one step in a long process to improve the team. 7-9 isn’t acceptable for a squad with playoff aspirations, and if they want to take the next step this year, they’ll have to improve in big ways. A lot of that will come through refocusing the efforts of the defense, specifically to stop the run. Ranked 25th in run defense DVOA, a Football Outsiders metric, keying in on those runs has been something Mike Zimmer has emphasized this offseason in order to improve the overall outlook of the team.

It’s something Robison takes pride in as well.

“I think it’s big time for us,” he said of run defense. “If we could have stopped the run a couple of games, would have allowed us to pin our ears back and get after the passer. That’s going to be one big-time emphasis this camp, is to make sure we get better at our run game and that’s defensive line, linebackers, safety, cornerbacks… it’s the whole defense as a unit.”

That sort of improvement, they hope, will allow them not just to contain the teams that use the run to establish their offense, but also allow them to be unafraid of rushing high-level passers like Aaron Rodgers. But beyond making sure the individual players and the unit as a whole dedicate themselves to stopping the run, the talent on the team needs to grow, too. That’s something Robison is looking forward to.

Behind Robison on the depth chart is Scott Crichton, and Robison thinks the Oregon State product has made big strides. “He’s been great. All those guys are important to us because they need to add depth to our defense, and the more depth they have, the better it will be for our team. It allows us to get more of a rotation, things like that, which allows us to stay fresh in the fourth quarter, which may allow us to win more ballgame.

“I think with him, he was a little bit behind the eight-ball, having to stay at Oregon State before he got here,” Robison said. “And now that he’s had a whole year under his belt. He knows the system better. Now that he had a whole OTAs, that experience you get is valuable so, I think for him it’s helped improve his game tremendously.”

With Robison and fellow defensive end Everson Griffen having played 85 percent of the snaps at their position—over 930 for each of them—that could be the key to making those defensive strides. Robison doesn’t know if the plan is to increase the rotation, but don’t be surprised.

“I want to be out there every single play that I can. But, we all know that when you have a healthy rotation, you can stay fresher throughout the year and throughout the game. For me, I’m just going ot make sure when I’m out there, I’m going to give it everything I got. If coach tells me to come off, let another guy step in and that’s the way it’s gotta be.”

Robison isn’t worried that refocusing on run defense, a bigger emphasis for defensive ends under Mike Zimmer than in most schemes, will change how people perceive his play. “I think it can [change how people see us], but bottom line is that it doesn’t matter; we’re trying to win. Bottom line is we were 7-9 last year and we’re not trying to do that again. We wanna make sure we’re a playoff team and we’re a contender once we get in the playoffs.”

Having a second year with Zimmer should help, too. “Once you get to know a guy, once you get to know your coaches, you kinda… you know what to expect coming into the second year. I think we kinda know how the flow of things will go throughout this training camp and we’ll be better for it because now we know what to expect, and we can go right at it without having to go through all the little teaching steps and stuff like that.”

It’ll be up to Robison to execute on that positivity, but there’s no shortage of confidence on the defensive line. Maybe getting used to a second year under Mike Zimmer will give him that familiarity. He might get used to it faster than I will to his shorter hair.