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Vikings drafting to fit a new defense

2/14/2014

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Early in his time as the Minnesota Vikings' coach, Mike Zimmer sat the team's front office and scouting staff down in a film room, and turned on tape of the Cincinnati Bengals' defense. He pointed out the responsibilities of each player in the Bengals' scheme, outlining what he'd want those players to do when Zimmer brings that defense to the Vikings.

Quickly, general manager Rick Spielman said, the people in the room realized they'd be able to look at some players that had been incompatible with the Cover-2 schemes of the Vikings' past.

"There are guys that are good football players that we may not have been interested in, in the past, that we’ll be interested in now because of what we learned so far of listening to Zim speak," Spielman said on Friday.

So what does that mean on a practical level? Well, I'd say a couple things. First, if Zimmer is using the Bengals' defense as a template for what he wants in Minnesota, I think we can largely put the idea of a 3-4 scheme to bed. Zimmer has coached a 3-4 defense in the past, as has defensive coordinator George Edwards, but Zimmer has typically preferred a 4-3 defense, and told reporters at the Vikings' Arctic Blast event last weekend that he hired Edwards in part because he'd been working in Miami under defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, the former Bengals secondary coach who had been running Zimmer's defense in Miami.

It also means, though, that the Vikings can probably take a longer look at corners who play more man coverage and linebackers who can play a bigger role in the pass rush than they've had in the past. Zimmer's defense figures to be more aggressive than Leslie Frazier's and Alan Williams' were, and the Vikings will find their personnel accordingly. To paraphrase the famous line of Zimmer's mentor, Bill Parcells, the Vikings' front office has been given a different grocery list to cook a different meal.

Spielman mentioned the Vikings might be able to take a look at smaller defensive ends that many teams view as 3-4 outside linebackers. In the past, the Vikings haven't necessarily pursued those players, but they might have more interest in them now. They could be nickel rushers, such as Everson Griffen (a similar body type) has been, or might even fit as linebackers in a 4-3 under Zimmer. Remember, former Steelers linebacker James Harrison -- one of the best pass-rushing 3-4 linebackers in the league -- shifted to the strong-side linebacker role in the Bengals' 4-3 scheme under Zimmer last season.

The Bengals' defensive ends were on the taller side, but they made effective use of shorter pass-rushers like Wallace Gilberry. That makes me think it's even more likely Griffen will be back with the Vikings next season, and it could cast a wider net for linebacker types than the Vikings have used in the past. Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson, who is a free agent this March, could also make sense for the Vikings. Essentially, they're able to consider players they might have previously stamped as poor fits for their scheme.

"We were on a particular player and it was, 'This is what his skill set is. Can he fit or can he not fit in the system?'" Spielman said. "In the past, he couldn’t fit in the system but now he does fit in the system. So as we're talking and going through it learning about what we’re doing defensively, offensively, but more on a defensive of the ball (we were), I don’t want to say retrained, but we’re looking at guys differently than we may have in the past."