Vikings changed culture with Mike Zimmer
HBO's "Hard Knocks" in 2013 gave a glimpse of what the Minnesota Vikings were getting last offseason when they hired Mike Zimmer as the ninth coach in franchise history.
In the weekly behind-the-scenes documentary of the Cincinnati Bengals' training camp, the former defensive coordinator came across as serious, sharp, candid and salty. That's what Vikings general manager Rick Spielman hired, and then some.
The 58-year-old Zimmer is blunt almost to a fault and hard-boiled when it comes to coaching and talking football with players, coaches and scouts. Teams reflect their head coach's personality, and one former colleague expects Zimmer's Vikings to be a "tough, no-nonsense, no-holds-barred team."
"He's going to tell you what's on his mind," the coach said of working with Zimmer. "He sometimes doesn't really have a filter. He doesn't mean anything by it. He's really honest, just says what he feels.
"It's one of those things where he says what he says and moves on to the next thing. He doesn't hold anything back, and he doesn't hold grudges. He doesn't think about, 'I may have yelled at you five minutes ago.' He just moves on."
Yes, things have changed drastically for the Green Bay Packers' NFC North Division rival after five years of the mercurial Brad Childress followed by three-plus seasons of stoic Leslie Frazier coaching the team.
The Vikings turned over the two most important positions in an NFL franchise in the offseason: their head coach, with Zimmer replacing Frazier last January, and quarterback, where first-round draft pick Teddy Bridgewater started his first game last week after Matt Cassel's season ended because of a broken foot.
Bridgewater's status for tonight's game against the Packers remained in doubt Wednesday evening because of the sprained ankle he sustained Sunday against Atlanta. But at least for the short term, he's re-energized the fan base, as was evident when the crowd at the Vikings' temporary home, TCF Bank Stadium, showered him with chants of "Ted-ee, Ted-ee" throughout the Vikings' 41-28 win over Atlanta.
But with or without Bridgewater, the 2-2 Vikings will bear Zimmer's stamp.
The most obvious difference will be on defense, where for the previous nine years they ran one form or another of the Tampa-2 defense. Now they're using Zimmer's more attacking 4-3 scheme that traces back to the Dallas Cowboys of the early to mid-1990s, though Zimmer also coordinated Bill Parcell's 3-4 defense with the Cowboys.
Zimmer took over a defense that last season finished last in the NFL in points allowed and second-to-last in yards allowed.
One scout who has watched the Vikings on video this year said their defense clearly is re-energized. Though four games in is early to read too much into NFL rankings, the Vikings are No. 9 in points allowed and No. 17 in yards allowed.
"He is going to keep as much pressure on you as he can put on you," said the assistant who has worked with Zimmer. "That is the gist of it. Be it with pressure, be it with disguise (of blitzes), be it whatever he's doing.
"He's always going to give you the illusion (of blitz), or he's going to give it to you. Pressure. Defensively he wants to accost the quarterback, be that with a four-man rush, or if he has to he's going to blitz you and hit you. He makes it fun for the guys. They love it."
Zimmer's signature calls come off a double-A-gap alignment. In that look, two linebackers stand at the line of scrimmage in the A gaps, which are on either side of the center. Sometimes one will blitz, sometimes both, sometimes neither.
Last week against Atlanta, on a key third down in the fourth quarter, Zimmer used the alignment with linebackers Anthony Barr and Gerald Hodges. Hodges didn't blitz, but Barr ran a delayed blitz and was untouched on his way to sacking Matt Ryan to end the drive.
"Pressure and pressure looks, bluffing into coverage," said Alex Van Pelt, the Packers' quarterbacks coach. "(Zimmer) does a great job. He's probably one of the toughest defensive coordinators to prepare for, because he gives you every single pressure combination there is. So you can't say, 'They don't have this pressure in their package, so we can make this call.'
"They challenge with every pressure that comes. They have a double-A package which is lethal, very good. We've done a ton of film study. We're ready for it."
Zimmer, the son of a longtime high school coach in Lockport, Ill., was an NFL assistant the past 20 years, including as defensive coordinator for the past 14 seasons with Dallas (2000-06), Atlanta ('07) and Cincinnati ('08-13).
His defenses finished in the top 10 in yards allowed in half of his seasons as coordinator, and in points allowed in five seasons. His Bengals' defenses ranked in the top 10 in both categories in each of the past three years, including in the top five last season.
But Zimmer never has run the defense for a team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs. So he's never been one of the NFL's hot assistant coaches even though he was respected enough to get five interviews in the past few seasons before meeting with the Vikings.
"I always thought he was one of the best defensive coaches in the league," said one longtime NFL offensive assistant coach this week. "The last time Dallas was any good on defense was when he was there."
You also have to wonder if Zimmer's forthright personal manner scared some of the teams that interviewed him. If it did, they didn't do their homework, because there are no signs his manner has turned off his players.
In fact, at least two Bengals players viewed as major character risks by NFL teams, cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones and linebacker Vontaze Burfict, thrived while playing for Zimmer. And after news broke last January that Zimmer had become the Vikings' coach, several Bengals defensive players (including Burfict and Jones) tweeted out congratulations and lamentations that their coordinator was leaving.
Head coach is a much different job than coordinator, so we won't know how good Zimmer is until he's sat in the captain's chair for a few seasons. But the guess here is the Vikings got much better in the long run when they hired him.
"You have to get used to him," said the assistant who worked with Zimmer. "One of the things he always used to say was, 'Don't be so sensitive. Listen to what I'm saying and not necessarily to how I'm saying it.' The players love the guy, and I coached for him and I love the guy."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty