The Minnesota Vikings will begin the 2014 NFL season under a new head coach and a new defensive philosophy. Mike Zimmer, who was the defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, was hired to be the next head coach of the Vikings during the 2014 NFL offseason.
This decision was made shortly after Vikings’ upper management decided to relieve Leslie Frazier, who is now the defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of his position as head coach. The hiring of Zimmer proves Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has faith in Zimmer’s ability to fix a defense that finished the 2013 season ranked 31st overall in total defense. Many NFL players and coaches, including Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells, have endorsed Zimmer as one of the best defensive minds in the game today. Zimmer’s reputation suggests that the Vikings’ defense will improve in 2014, but how great of an improvement remains to be seen.
Zimmer not only brings with him 30-plus years of coaching experience on the defensive side of the football, but a history of consistent success as well. His résumé includes top-10 rated defenses with the Bengals, Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Naturally, one would assume that Zimmer’s long, successful history of coaching defenses in the NFL would secure an improvement for the Vikings’ defense in 2014. However, this process will realistically require an undetermined amount of patience.
While the complete process of rebuilding the Vikings’ defense may take time, there are reasons to be optimistic about some immediate improvements. Toward the end of his rookie season, cornerback Xavier Rhodes teased fans with glimpses of elite cornerback traits. His 6-foot-1 frame coupled with improving play recognition and man-to-man coverage skills indicate that Rhodes could potentially develop into the shutdown cornerback the Vikings have been desperately searching for. In a division dominated by elite wide receivers and top-tier quarterbacks, the development of Rhodes will be a key factor in the Vikings’ immediate and future success.
Zimmer, a former defensive backs coach, has been able to maximize the potential of multiple cornerbacks who he has coached in the past. Recent additions to this list include Bengals cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam “Pacman” Jones. Rhodes’ body type, work ethic and natural athleticism indicate a much higher potential ceiling than either of these players who had success in Zimmer’s defensive scheme. As a result, it is not inconceivable that Rhodes could demonstrate noticeable improvement in his sophomore season with the Vikings.
Nearly every member of the Bengals’ defense performed relatively well in Zimmer’s defensive scheme, but the definitive face of his defensive unit was Geno Atkins. The 6-foot-1, 302-pound defensive tackle was a one-man wrecking crew within Zimmer’s interior defensive line, totaling 26 sacks since 2011. Since Zimmer’s scheme hinges on dominant interior defensive line play, he will likely attempt to develop a “Vikings version” of Atkins. Zimmer will be inclined to take a long look at second-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd when determining who will play Atkins’ role on the Vikings’ defensive line. Floyd, listed at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, resembles Atkins both in build and athleticism. At the 2010 combine, Atkins recorded a 40-yard dash time of 4.75 as well as a 33-inch vertical leap. Floyd, in 2013, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds and jumped 30 inches during his vertical leap test. In fairness to Atkins, Floyd is not even in the same conversation as him at this point in his career, but it is hard to deny the visible similarities between these two players.
Floyd, similar to Rhodes, is a candidate to improve considerably in Zimmer’s defensive scheme. He presumably would be placed adjacent to the newly signed and exceedingly talented Linval Joseph on the Vikings’ defensive line, forming a very athletic 628-pound barrier. Six-hundred and twenty-eight pounds not only is a heavy load for smaller offensive lineman to fend off, but also is the exact combined weight total of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the Vikings’ lethal defensive tackle combination from nearly a decade ago. Defensive tackles who combine both size and athleticism have historically had a lot of success in Zimmer’s defensive scheme.
Zimmer’s immediate impact on talented defensive players, such as Kirkpatrick or Atkins, indicates that his presence will presumably have a noticeable impact on the Vikings’ defense in 2014 and an immeasurable impact over the course of his tenure in Minnesota.