Mike Zimmer is a football-lifer in the truest sense of the word. He has been a coach since 1979, an NFL coach since 1994 and a defensive play-caller since 2000. Along the way, he has been a division champion, a Super Bowl champion, an Assistant of the Year winner and has worked under some of the finest coaches in the history of the sport.
Throughout his NFL coaching career, Zimmer has earned a reputation as a schemer, relying on aggressive blitzing and fast players. He first became talk of the town in the early 2000s as defensive coordinator for the Cowboys. Like today’s Vikings, that Dallas team had playmakers at each level, such as star tackle La’Roi Glover, linebacker Dat Nguyen and safety Roy Williams. Oh, and Terence Newman, who has followed Zimmer everywhere he has been, played on that defense, as well. With these players and his defensive acumen, Zimmer managed to hang on through the Dallas coaching carousel of the late-90s and early 2000s.
But Zimmer did not earn a head coaching job for his work in Dallas. While he established his name and general principles, Zimmer’s style of play, his preference of player, his philosophy of defense was never quite realized with the Cowboys. In fact, Bill Parcells brought a 3-4 defense in 2003 when he became head coach, something Zimmer never utilized before.
No, where Mike Zimmer first built his defense was with Marvin Lewis in Cincinnati. And he did it, first and foremost, with a dominant front seven.
Examine the hallmarks of the Vikings defense we see today. What are the most essential bits that make it tick? For the most part, they are freakishly athletic pass-rushers, a dominant tackle, versatile linebackers and a free-flowing, hard-hitting safety. By building around these facets, Zimmer can effectively utilize aggressive blitzing, exotic coverages and most of all, confusion.
In hindsight, the similarities between the current Viking personnel and the Bengals’ personnel from 2008 to 2013 are uncanny. Replace Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter with Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson. Linval Joseph is Geno Atkins. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga. Harrison Smith is half Reggie Nelson and half George Iloka. And Terence Newman is, well, still Terence Newman.
This is the unit that made Zimmer a head coach. This is the unit that turned the Bengals’ defense around. When Zimmer came to town, Cincinnati was the 27th-best defense in the league. They were third by the time he left. By some strange coincidence, the Vikings were second-worst in the league in yards in 2013. And they are now third. Funny how that works.
As it turns out, his time in Cincinnati gave him what he needed to create this Vikings team fans love. He moved Griffen into the starting lineup. Rick Spielman gave him Joseph and drafted Barr, Kendricks and Hunter for him. Together, they brought in the players that could replicate his Cincinnati success.
The point is that when the Bengals come to U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, it will be a matchup of two defenses that Zimmer completely reshaped to his style. As shaky as the ground under Marvin Lewis’ feet may be, Vikings fans should be thanking him. They should thank him that he hired Zimmer in 2008. That he allowed him to form the defense he saw fit. That he essentially gave Zimmer his trial run at being the head coach of a Super Bowl contender.
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