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NFL Draft

Will Vikings’ Defensive Changes Prove Fruitful In 2021?

  • The Draft Network
  • July 9, 2021
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Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer didn’t mince words when it came to discussing his defense’s underwhelming performance in 2020. A unit submerged within the league’s bottom third in every major rushing and passing category allowed, the Vikings head into camp with an eye for major improvement from all avenues if they envision a return back to the playoffs. 

“Scheme-wise we’ve been going through everything with a fine-tooth comb,” Zimmer said. “[We’re] trying to evaluate every little thing that we’re doing, things that we can improve, things we’re doing terminology-wise, all the different areas… we’ve had some of the best meetings we’ve had in eight years probably.”

While that’s always good to hear, actions have, and always will, speak louder than words. 

A primary 4-3 defense under Zimmer’s nearly decade-long tenure, Minnesota could look drastically different as they enter a crucial fall not just for Zimmer, but the entire Vikings organization as they desperately cling to Kirk Cousins’ coattails in hopes of a return to NFL glory. 

Zimmer and Rick Spielman first hinted at a switch in defensive tactics with the signing of Dalvin Tomlinson, a gap-plugging interior 3-tech with the versatility to play as a primary nose tackle. Tomlinson, who played a similar role during his college time at Alabama, was priority No. 1 for Spielman’s office this spring who wrapped up his offseason cycle with the additions of apex defenders Xavier Woods, Bashaud Breeland, and three-time All-Pro corner Patrick Peterson to provide much-needed quality opposite Cameron Dantzler.

Roster additions usually offer a precursor to a major schematic switch, but adjustments in the coaching staff more than often confirm it. Along with the hiring of former Raiders assistant Paul Guenther, Zimmer hired Karl Scott, the former Crimson Tide defensive backs coach the last three seasons. Each hiring is equally important as both Guenther and Scott have a prior past of implementing the 4-2-5 defense and its intricate pattern matching concepts.

Whether or not Minnesota decides to deploy the alignment as their base defense remains to be seen, but the underlying question remains just how much could the Vikings defense improve considering the players currently in town to execute its required nuisances. 

So, you’re wondering what a 4-2-5 is and how it would be successful in Minnesota. From a floor perspective, the alignment eerily mirrors a base nickel defense with an extra corner near the line of scrimmage, replacing the linebacker that would normally be present in Zimmer’s 4-3 base. Known for pre-snap looks that turn into unique coverages and blitzers from all over the field post-snap, the alignment couldn’t fit current Vikings personnel more. With Tomlinson and Michael Pierce serving as the beef on the interior as anchors in the run game, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks’ sideline-to-sideline speed are highlighted with five defensive backs on the field.

With an athletic second level comes increased versatility and coverage customization at the ceiling. Every base coverage, whether in man or zone, is a possibility when deploying a group of five defensive backs. Whether in Cover 3 or press-man concepts, it’s hard to beat a defense with the ball through the air with roaming safeties as versatile as Harrison Smith or Woods. Another variation of the defense is a trend made popular by TCU and Florida State at the collegiate level called pattern matching, where the outside corner will either stick in man or sit in zone depending on the route concept from the receiver in front of him. If the wideout presses vertically on a 9-ball or shades toward the boundary on a post corner, you’ll often see the corner stick hip-to-hip throughout the play. On the other hand, if the wideout stays shallow on a slant or curl, the corner will then keep his eyes up and sit freely in zone.

While the alignment surely has its deficiencies, with the uptick in speed and continued evolution of NFL offenses from week to week, the 4-2-5 would allow exactly what Zimmer wants his defenders to do: play fast. The presence of both Barr—an excellent blitzer—and Kendricks—outstanding in coverage—present ideal fits in an ideal scenario. Questions remain about who could fill the slot role, whether it’s Mike Hughes or free-agent addition Mackensie Alexander, but I’d turn my vote in for the latter, as he has solid experience in the run game, is quick-twitched at the line of scrimmage against smaller wideouts, and has shown the ability to wrap up in the open field. That leads us to Dantzler and Peterson as the two primary outside corners who both have loads of experience working in both man and zone concepts. For Peterson, it could be a nice transition from Arizona where he was asked to shadow the opposing team’s top wideout from the opening whistle. At nearly 31 years old, his days of traveling look to be over, as his role as a 50/50 corner working on one side of the turf could result in an excellent campaign in his 11th season. 

Showing one look then dropping into another; sending a safety while the linebacker rotates back; the intricate concepts of Zimmer’s potential new defense could be the ideal switch for a team quickly looking to rid of its base three-linebacker set. With the necessary talent and personnel now in place, the switch could provide massive dividends for a Vikings club under their brightest spotlight in years.

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