Defense a top priority for Vikings' Zimmer
MANKATO, Minn. — Perhaps the 1:30 a.m. false alarm that chased the Vikings from their dormitory hours before their first official practice of 2014 was a clarion call for some players — a final, ear-splitting reminder of the tire fire that was Minnesota’s 2013 defense.
A dysfunctional unit that ranked among the worst in franchise history is the primary rescue mission of new coach Mike Zimmer.
Six defensive starters were jettisoned from a moldy, predictable scheme that Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards want to transform into a more aggressive unit capable of surprising opponents.
The first step is purging last year’s performance under former defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
“It’s easier to let it go because things are going to be totally different,” said defensive end Brian Robison. “Sometimes when you have things like that, it’s a little bit easier when you have a new coaching staff and a new scheme.
“As bad as we were, and as bad as that looked on paper, this is 2014. We can’t sit here and dwell on 2013.”
Even more than the quarterback mess, most of Minnesota’s 5-10-1 face plant can be blamed on a defense that ranked at or near the bottom of the league’s 32 teams in every statistical category. The Vikings simply could not stop the other team when it mattered most — gut-check situations like third down and protecting fourth-quarter leads.
They allowed points a whopping 94 percent of the time an opponent drove into the red zone, including 39 touchdowns in 63 possessions.
“To be part of a defense that put up those numbers, I have a lot of pride; I don’t want to be a part of that,” said safety Harrison Smith.
Moreover, the Vikings ranked 29th in scoring defense in the fourth quarter, allowing 8.3 points per game — 10.2 on the road.
All familiar horrors to anyone who watched as Minnesota melted down and coughed up potential victories.
In five games, the Vikings failed to protect leads in their final defensive possessions. Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Baltimore and Green Bay all squeezed four wins and one tie, respectively, with touchdowns that spanned a total of just 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
“Yeah, I saw a five-win team,” Zimmer said about his post-mortem of the 2013 Vikings. “I go by what I see and what the record says. They lost some close ballgames at the end, but last year was last year. They’re not really worried about last year.”
As camp starts this weekend, Zimmer is putting a premium on tackling. He also wants his cornerbacks to play tougher, bump-and-run coverage when called for compared to the softer zones the Vikings have played in the past.
“You have to be able to cover. You have to be able to contest balls and be in people’s faces,” he said. “You can’t bust coverages. You can’t give up (big) plays like that.”
Full contact is limited, so it will take time for a new identity to take shape in the secondary — although Zimmer noted offensive coordinator Norv Turner said coverage tightened throughout organized team activities this spring.
Swarming to the ball and getting ball carriers to the ground remains the hallmark of any good defense.
“They’re going to miss tackles because guys are getting to the ball so hard,” Zimmer said. “Statistically, teams that are lower ranked are poor-tackling football teams that give up big plays. They don’t keep the quarterback contained in the right situation. For us to improve defensively, we have got to cover better.”
Zimmer’s defenses in Cincinnati were renowned for disguising looks in the secondary and off-setting defensive line fronts to keep offenses off balance and quarterbacks guessing.
Robison acknowledged the Vikings had become too conventional, especially against NFC North opponents familiar with their stale scheme.
“There were some times when we’d line up and (Green Bay quarterback) Aaron Rodgers is calling out our defense as we’re lining up,” he said.
The 1984 Vikings, a hapless bunch coached one disastrous 3-13 season by Les Steckel, allowed 483 points. The 2013 Vikings yielded 480.
It is an unwanted distinction for a franchise whose Hall of Fame roster includes all-time defensive greats such as Alan Page, Carl Eller and John Randle. And a motivating place from which to start over in 2014.
“Yeah, you don’t forget those things,” Smith said. “That kind of stuff will drive you when you’re working out, but right now I think we have a lot of potential to be a very good defense.”