Mike Zimmer’s vocabulary includes a smattering of four-letter words, a treasure trove of unique phrases, and plenty of criticisms. But a word you’ll never hear from the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, no matter how well his team plays, is ‘perfect.’
Despite taking the league’s worst scoring defense from 2013 and making them a top-five unit in just two years, Zimmer hesitates to proclaim he’s actually fixed things in Minnesota. “I don’t think we’re very good, to be honest with you,” he told reporters at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine. “We can be a lot better,” he said, speaking to Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune.
The perception around the NFL is that the Vikings are one of the best teams in the NFC, buoyed by an up-and-coming defense with the roster pieces to contend for years. In Teddy Bridgewater, they have a young quarterback with all of the skills and leadership to bring the Vikings back to the playoffs. In Zimmer, they’ve got a top-five coach, one who won’t settle for anything less than perfection.
But in order to fulfill those expectations and clear the historical hurdles, they’ll need improvements across the board. It’s odd to say that about a team that went 11-5 and won the division in 2015, but Zimmer’s right; the Vikings can be “a lot better.” Well, maybe not “a lot” better, but certainly better in a few key areas.
It’s the bugaboo that bit Zimmer’s defense last season. The unit finished tied for 21st in the league, allowing 4.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs. As Andrew Krammer of ESPN 1500 wrote, it’s one of the areas the team wants to improve on their quest to be the league’s best. And in 2016, they’ll be tested by some of the NFL’s best rushing attacks, from the Carolina Panthers in Week 2 to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 13.
Their biggest test will come in the form of Eddie Lacy, who’s enjoyed a healthy handful of games against the Vikings. In six career games against the division rival, Lacy has scored five touchdowns and averaged nearly 95 yards on the ground. To claim a second-straight NFC North title, they’ll need to stop a trimmed-down Lacy and keep Aaron Rodgers off the field.
A healthy Linval Joseph — who missed four games in 2015 — is the key up front. Without him, Zimmer’s defense doesn’t “go.” He’s the cog in the middle, a dominating presence that frees up running lanes for linebackers and stops centers and guards in their tracks. According to Pro Football Focus, Joseph’s 10.6 run-stopping percentage was sixth-best among all defensive tackles and paved the way for Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks to be so successful last season.
In order to build on that formula, the Vikings will need better play at weak side linebacker and strong safety; two positions that struggled against the run in 2015 and two positions that may see new starters in 2016.
The deep ball. The “long bomb.”
It’s been Teddy Bridgewater’s greatest weakness as a passer, one that reared its ugly head on countless missed opportunities down the field last season. While throwing the deep ball isn’t a necessity for winning in the NFL, it’s a skill that opens up other opportunities for the offense. And if we’re to listen to every word coming out of organized team activities (OTAs) and minicamp this offseason, Bridgewater is ready to “let loose.”
Earlier this month, Zimmer commented on Bridgewater’s improvements as a deep passer, telling reporters that it’s been a focus in practices.[quote_box_center]“I think we’re just focused on it a little more,” Zimmer said, per Chris Tomasson. “There was a play last week that kind of showed me the progression. … (Bridgewater) saw the safety bite a little bit and just hung it right down the middle of the field about 55 yards and a perfect strike. So those are the kind of things I see (that) two years ago or even early last year, I don’t think he would have done. … He just looks more comfortable and confident.”[/quote_box_center]
Part of the problem last season was a leaky offensive line that offered Bridgewater little time or room to step up in the pocket. Adrian Peterson, who led the league in rushing yardage, dominated touches and essentially carried the team to the playoffs. But a retooled line, an influx of new weapons, and an emphasis on taking shots down the field point to a breakout season for Bridgewater in 2016. It may be the year for Bridgewater to prove he’s more than just a check-down passer and a multi-faceted quarterback who can make every “NFL throw.”
Step it up, Young Fella
On a roster with so many young contributors, there’s no time to waste. Players are expected to enter the facility, learn the team’s complex schemes, and jump onto the field almost immediately. From Bridgewater to Barr and Stefon Diggs, players understand that the time to learn is now, and sitting on the bench will only delay the inevitable.
The time has come for a few of the first and second-year players to step up; most notably, 2015 first-round draft pick Trae Waynes. The cornerback played some of his best football late last year, but only managed 195 snaps and one start the entire season. With veteran Terence Newman back on a one-year deal, Waynes will have his hands full trying to compete for a starting job. Jerry Gray, the Vikings’ defensive backs coach, is pushing Waynes to win the job.
“What I’ve tried to get him to understand is don’t be afraid to take more chances,” Gray said, per Krammer. “So you have all that ability, use it more. Other than using it as a safe mechanism, use it more of a chance mechanism where it gives me a chance to go make plays.”
The same can be said for second-year defensive end Danielle Hunter, who burst into the lineup last season with six sacks and an impressive reel of game film. With his comic book size and tremendous first step off the line of scrimmage, Hunter can go toe-to-toe with any offensive tackle in the NFL. But like Waynes, he’s also been hesitant to unleash his full potential, coming up high at the snap or relying on a simple speed rush to get to the quarterback.
“I just have to build off what happened last year,” Hunter said, per the team’s official website. “I have to constantly keep pushing my speed and using my hands, just doing whatever the coaches tell me to do.”
And finally, there’s Laquon Treadwell, the team’s 2016 first round pick and potential game-changer at wide receiver. Although he’s been learning with the second-team offense this offseason, there’s no reason to believe he won’t be starting next to Stefon Diggs when the season opens in September. Zimmer admitted as much during OTAs, telling the Star Tribune that Treadwell is well-developed for a rookie wide receiver.[quote_box_center]“He had three really good days,” Zimmer said “I don’t know if [yesterday] was his best day, but he’s had three really good days. He’s got really good acceleration. He’s fast off the line. He runs good routes. He catches the ball good and he’s got a good feel on how to run the routes.”[/quote_box_center]
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