After starting their season 1-5 losing a few stinker games to some bad teams along the way, the Minnesota Vikings have rattled off 2 straight impressive victories against divisional opponents to bring their record to 3-5 on the year. With another divisional opponent on the docket Monday night, the Vikings find themselves at a crossroads between a legit push for playoff contention and the idea of a semi-re-build within the organization.
But how did we get here? How did the team that got blown out by the Atlanta Falcons bounce back two weeks later to defeat the first place Green Bay Packers and a competitive Detroit Lions team? Mind you doing so with half of their defensive backfield on the shelf with injuries as well.
There are certainly multiple factors at play here, but I’ve got good reason to argue that much of the Vikings success is due to Mike Zimmer adopting a rookie coaching strategy that we haven’t seen here in Minnesota since Zim took over in 2014.
It was one of the first things that Mike Zimmer did when he was hired on as head coach for the Minnesota Vikings following a 5-10-1 season and the decision to move on from Leslie Frazier. He threw a pizza party for the media!
That’s right, a pizza party. Now there was another purpose for this gathering, Zimmer had gathered the local media in the cramped Vikings film room at the old Winter Park facility to showcase All-22 footage of his defensive scheme. Sounds boring right? Right, that’s why he lured us all in with pizza! The afternoon actually turned out to be extremely informative. Coach discussed how his scheme had found success in Cincinnati and how he expected to implement those schemes here with the Vikings. But the most important thing he said, came at the end of his presentation.
With the assembled media popping out of their pizza induced food coma when the lights turned back on, Zimmer told us, “this is the scheme, the long-term plan… right now we don’t have the players for the scheme. So until we are able to draft those players and sign those players to fit these roles, we’re going to have to work with what we’ve got.” I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the message.
Then we kicked back and watched as Zimmer and his staff rounded out their roster by drafting Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks, Shamar Stephen, Danielle Hunter and Trae Waynes. Then he hit the ground running in free agency signing players like Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson to fill some of the remaining empty voids. After working through the growing pains of that first season Zimmer’s Vikings rattled off three playoff appearances and avoided having a losing season throughout.
Mike Zimmer’s plan to fit his scheme with the right players worked, but contracts, COVID and injuries have gotten in the way of continuing that trend into the 2020 season. Look at the names listed above and compare them to today’s active roster, all you’ll see left standing is LB Eric Kendricks. Some are gone via free agency, others injured or out for the year. Their replacements have opted out due to COVID, have suffered injuries along the way, have been traded or are still too inexperienced to properly play in the desired scheme the coach has developed.
So after a rocky start and even more injuries piled on top of an already grim looking situation, Zimmer when back to that rookie coaching strategy that he explained at the end of the pizza party in 2014. As a veteran coach he knows that he can’t go to the podium and say it anymore, but watching the play on the football field you’re seeing Mike Zimmer in essence saying, “right now we don’t have the players for the scheme. So until we are able to draft those players and sign those players to fit these roles, we’re going to have to work with what we’ve got” (again, paraphrasing).
We actually saw this new shift employed for the first time on Sunday Night against the Seattle Seahawks. The Vikings didn’t have the personnel to keep up with Russell Wilson and that high-powered offense so they sat back, kept the game in front of them and made Russell find the proper read. That plan came crumbling down in the final minutes of the game, but the groundwork was laid out for an undermanned Vikings team to compete against any team.
Then they laid an egg against Atlanta, no excuses there, just looking past a team thinking you were better than you are.
But back at it in Green Bay and again vs Detroit, Zimmer adapted his game plan on both sides of the football to focus on the strengths, avoid some of the weaknesses and cover up some of the deficiencies along the way.
We’ve seen this with Kirk Cousins very obviously. Gary Kubiak has taken the onus off of Kirk and in doing so has removed some of the pressure he had on his shoulders. Kirk went from 39 attempts in Seattle and 36 against Atlanta down to just 14 and 20 attempts in the teams last two wins. He’s been more accurate, more efficient and has been able to pick and choose him moments to be lethal. That’s extended too to the offensive line where Kubiak has simplified blocking schemes, it also helps having the best running back in football healthy as well.
On defense, Zimmer has taken a piece-mailed defense with new names across the board and has stymied two of the most dangerous QBs in the NFL in subsequent weeks. Like the Seattle game, they’re keeping the game in front of them, putting the remaining stars in positions to shine and offering help where help is needed. This has largely taken the pressure off of any one player to feel like they had to do more than they could handle and has opened a bunch of young players up to play loose, and they’re finding success.
We’re all familiar with the saying, “you can’t fit a square peg through a round hole”. Rather than continuing to bang harder on the square peg just because “that’s how we do it here” like they might have been doing through the first weeks of the season, Zimmer has spent the past month rounding off the edges of that square peg so that it can better fit through the round hole and accomplish the collective goal.
So far, it’s resulted in wins over the Packers and the Lions and has the Vikings favored on the road in Chicago Monday night. In a weird year where playoffs might look different and COVID has teams on a week-to-week tightrope, staying competitive and coming out of this middle stretch of the season can keep the Vikings in playoff contention long into the season. All thanks to the humility and understanding of the coaching staff that they might have to go back to rookie coaching tactics to get competitive again in 2020.