Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has been adapting to unforeseen circumstances his entire tenure in Minnesota.
It really came to fruition in 2016, when Teddy Bridgewater‘s horrific knee injury marked the first domino in a truly unfortunate series of events that included a midseason change at offensive coordinator, unlimited injuries and multiple eye surgeries. Since then, as is the story of the Vikings franchise, new challenges present themselves that nobody could have seen coming.
The 2020 season has presented unique challenges to the entire league thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Schedules are rapidly changing, star players have opted out, while others have contracted the virus themselves.
Minnesota’s unique offseason strategy left the team with profound youth and inexperience in the secondary, applying pressure to the defensive back guru that is Zimmer to quickly get the young players up to speed so they could contribute to a winning defense. Of course, with almost no offseason programs taking place and no preseason games, it was almost impossible for Zimmer to transition his young defensive backs — namely rookies Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler — into the NFL.
Before the season even started, Zimmer lost stars Danielle Hunter (neck injury) and Michael Pierce (opted out due to COVID-19 concerns) for the season. Before long, Pro Bowl linebacker Anthony Barr was added to that list. Meanwhile, 2018 first-round pick Mike Hughes has spent a majority of the season on injured reserve, while Holton Hill had missed almost the whole season and has recently been waived by the team.
Minnesota’s slow start to the season on the defensive side of the ball is easier to understand when considering all of this. In fact, many felt Zimmer’s job was in jeopardy after a 1-5 start. But since then, the Vikings have slowly trended towards prime Zimmer defensive form. Despite losing Hunter, Pierce, Barr and Hughes, the Vikings have still mustered the sixth-best defense in the NFL on third downs and are currently ranked third in red-zone defense.
It did take a few weeks for Zimmer to adjust to the new pieces that were suddenly playing key roles in his defense. But once he understood his new players’ strengths and weaknesses, his defense resumed its solid play. Minnesota is currently the No. 7 coverage team per Pro Football Focus, and the Vikings defense ranks ninth in the NFL in DVOA.
Minnesota’s 5-1 run since the bye week has mostly come against weaker opponents, with the exception of the Green Bay Packers in a Week 8 victory. However, the Vikings’ Week 14 matchup in Tampa may be the toughest test of the season for a young secondary.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers boast perhaps the most talented group of skill position players in the NFL, and they have the most accomplished quarterback in the history of sport throwing them the football. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin emerged as one of the best receiving duos in the NFL last year. Antonio Brown joined the Bucs a few weeks ago as the presumptive No. 3 receiver and slot option for Tom Brady. And of course, Rob Gronkowski signed with the team prior to the season.
It’s setting up to be a career-defining game for Zimmer. A quick comparison of the personnel between the Tampa Bay offense and the Minnesota defense provides almost no optimism for the Vikings. On top of that, star linebacker Eric Kendricks is on the injury report this week after surprisingly missing last week’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Logically Minnesota’s defense shouldn’t be given a chance to contain the explosive Buccaneers. However, Zimmer has been in this spot before — and he’s been in this spot against Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians before. Flashback to 2015 when the Vikings traveled to Glendale to take on the Arizona Cardinals on a Thursday night. Minnesota was coming off a brutal 38-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and was missing a bunch of key contributors on defense, including Barr, Linval Joseph, and both starting safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo.
Ultimately, the Vikings lost by three points in a game that came down to the final drive. However, Zimmer allowed just 23 points to Arians’ offense, which featured Carson Palmer, David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.
A similar effort is required this week to keep Minnesota in the NFC playoff picture. The Vikings are undermanned and frankly have no business matching up with Tampa Bay’s offense. The only edge Minnesota has is Zimmer, who has shown time and time again that he can put together a rock star gameplan when it’s needed most regardless of the circumstances.