How Mike Zimmer Shut Down the Bears With a Few Rookies, 7th-Rounders, Some Shoe String and Chewing Gum

Kam Nedd/Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings are currently playing defense with one hand tied behind their back. Currently half of the Vikings’ starting defense is on Injured Reserve, as Mike Zimmer is forced to try and stop offenses without Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr and his two starting corners in Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris and Eric Kendricks are still standing (knock on wood), but the replacement starters consist of a bunch of rookies, six day-three draft picks and one midseason waiver claim.

So it’s all the more impressive that on Monday Night Football that ragtag band of backups managed to hold the Bears to under 150 total yards, just 3.0 yards per play and just ten total first downs — each of which marks the worst output by the Bears all year. The Vikings held Nick Foles’ passer rating to a Bears’ season-low of 51.1, and the Bears only managed to convert on two of thirteen third or fourth down opportunities, also a Bears’ season low.

So while the Bears’ offense might be struggling, no defense made them struggle more than the Vikings did on the Bears’ own home turf in primetime. How did Zimmer turn out such an impressive performance with such a dearth of defensive talent?

Pre-Snap Confusion

One of the most effective ways Zimmer bought time for his young cornerbacks was by disguising his coverage shells all game, forcing Foles to make quick and uncomfortable post-snap reads that led to poor throws, like this one:

The Vikings come out with Anthony Harris up top pre-snap, and the Bears come out in a 3×1 formation before motioning Anthony Miller across for a 2×2 formation. Jeff Gladney follows Miller across the formation, hinting that this might be man coverage, while Harris rotates down to the box and Harrison Smith takes his place up top. Pre-snap the Vikings coverage is disguised as Cover 1 or Cover 3 Match, but all that changes after the snap.

Right at the snap, Smith widens and backpedals to the field side while Harris also quickly gains depth, revealing a two-high safety look. Foles looks to the boundary where the Bears are running a spot concept, but because the Vikings are running a zone coverage underneath and not man, the flat route is taken away by Kris Boyd (who splits the flat and corner route), while Eric Wilson beats Allen Robinson to his spot route.

Foles is forced to come across and read the other side of the field, where Miller has gotten open on an intermediate crossing route. But you can see Foles’ hesitation as he pitter-pats his feet before throwing the ball — he knows he has to fit this pass over Eric Kendricks, so he throws it high. But that hesitation and poor footwork help force an imperfect pass that goes through Miller’s hands and right into Smith’s for a big turnover.

All that disguised coverage and all those moving parts is a lot to process, and it’s even more for Foles to process in a matter of three seconds. Good scheming and execution helped force the poor throw and kept Foles on his toes (both literally and figuratively) all game.

Aggressive, Effective Blitzes

The Bears converted two of their first three third down opportunities against the Vikings, with the Vikings choosing not to blitz on either conversion. From that point on, the Vikings’ defense clamped down and went ten straight third and fourth downs without giving up a single conversion, due in large part to the Vikings blitzing on most of those remaining critical downs. The Vikings only dialed up nine blitzes all game, but six of those blitzes came on those late downs, and all six blitzes forced a stop:

Cover 0 (an all-out blitz with zero safety help and man coverage on each receiver) can be an effective goal line play call as the safeties provide less value in coverage as the field gets shorter and it can force quick, poor throws by throwing more blitzers than an offense has blockers. On third and five, it also has the added benefit of being a very effective, easy run fit, ensuring every gap is covered in the event the offense tries to run the ball.

The Bears block the blitz with a half-slide left and the RB sprints out to the flat (which is why Smith drops back from a blitz into coverage on the back). That leaves the Bears’ right guard and right tackle tasked with blocking Kendricks up the A-gap, Mata’afa up the B-gap and D.J. Wonnum up the C-gap. Traditional pass blocking rules would have the offense block inside out here, as Kendricks’ path to the quarterback is much shorter than Wonnum’s. But instead, the Bears’ right tackle almost tries to split the two defenders, giving Mata’afa one quick punch with his left hand before turning to Wonnum. Mata’afa gets a great first step and hits Foles to prevent him from stepping into his throw or even finishing his drop back, causing the pass to sail high and forcing a field goal.

An even better blitz came later in the game, with a fresh twist on Zimmer’s go-to third down play call:

The traditional counter to Mike Zimmer’s double-A gap look is to have the center block one blitzing linebacker while the running back blocks the other, and if Harrison Smith also blitzes off the edge, then the quarterback has to “throw hot,” or get rid of the ball quickly to a receiver running a quick route. The Bears go with that traditional counter on this play, and they have a hot route in Allen Robinson running a curl right past the first down marker. They have the right answer for Zimmer’s standard attack here.

But Zimmer isn’t running his standard attack; he only wants the Bears to think he is. Notice how both linebackers take two very slight steps outside prior to the snap. That, along with the linebackers widening their rush after the snap, opens up a wide rushing lane for Smith, who disguises and times this blitz perfectly. There is no time for Foles to throw hot to Robinson because Smith isn’t coming unblocked off the edge; he’s coming unblocked right up the middle. Smith is right in Foles’ face before Foles even finishes a three-step shotgun drop back. Foles sprints backwards and heaves up a prayer, and unsurprisingly it falls incomplete. The Bears had this schemed up the right way, but Zimmer introduced a new wrinkle to buy space for Smith to loop inside unblocked, which made that right answer wrong.

Unconventional Coverage Shells

But as effective and creative as Zimmer’s blitzes were, it was the coverage calls on the back end that were the most creative and interesting aspect of this game plan. On a number of plays on Monday Night, Zimmer had his cornerbacks playing deep safety and his safeties playing man coverage up front:

This is essentially Cover 2-man (what Nick Saban would call Cover 5) — the cornerbacks play aggressive coverage underneath, trailing behind defenders because they have help over the top from two deep safeties — except here, Harrison Smith is the “cornerback” on Allen Robinson, and Chris Jones is the “safety” on the deep field side.

Normally you wouldn’t want Smith in man coverage on a receiver as talented as Robinson, but this call allows Smith to show blitz while also using his physicality against Robinson near the line of scrimmage to take away the quick route at the sticks. Robinson breaks away after that, but Jones is on top to take away any deep shot. Foles has nowhere to go with the ball, and D.J. Wonnum loops inside on a solid TEX (tackle-end exchange) stunt for the sack and stop.

Another example of inverted coverage came on Harrison Smith’s big pass breakup later in the game:

Still one more example came when the Bears motioned four receivers to the boundary side of the field, so that the Vikings checked into a coverage that resulted in Anthony Harris playing like a cornerback on Anthony Miller:

The Bears are trying to flood the Vikings coverage here by putting three receivers on one side of the field (four if you include the back), and the Vikings counter by flooding coverage to that side of the field. Once the Bears motion Cordarrelle Patterson across the formation to the boundary side, Smith rotates to the single-high position and Harris rotates down into the box. The Vikings wind up with Smith and Gladney covering the two deep thirds/quarters on the right side of the field while Anthony Harris carries Anthony Miller, where he blankets the route and comes up with a great pass breakup.

Mike Zimmer Still Has His Fastball

Mike Zimmer held the Bears to their worst offensive performance of the year despite being down over half his starters. Zimmer’s disguises had Foles stumbling and guessing after every snap. Foles was pressured on 40% of his drop backs as Zimmer’s blitz designs consistently created unblocked pressure, and Zimmer dug deep into his bag of tricks for some very effective inverted coverages. The whole game through, he seemed to know exactly what the Bears were going to do, and nearly always had the exact counter for the Bears’ plan of attack.

Zimmer has put up a lot of great defensive game plans through the years, but the creativity he showed to shut down a divisional rival on the road despite being severely undermanned should this game plan rank among Zimmer’s best.