For the first time since 2013, the Vikings are neither playing in a temporary stadium nor moving into a new one, not preparing to host the Super Bowl nor opening a massive practice facility. The identity of the starting quarterback, for the first time since training camp 2016, is the same as it was the previous season.
Yet to assume things will be business as usual, as the Vikings kick off their second training camp in Eagan this week, might not be quite right.
The Vikings spent much of the spring experimenting with different looks on defense — partly to modify a unit that will again be tested by a series of road games against prolific QBs, and partly to provide scout-team looks for an offense that sputtered in big games last season. After losing four of their last seven and missing the playoffs in 2018, the Vikings have little interest in leaving things to chance.
To preview the team’s 2019 training camp, the Star Tribune sat down with coach Mike Zimmer for a Q&A on what he expects in the lead-up to the Vikings’ Sept. 8 season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.
Q: You guys have spent a fair amount of the spring trying different things on defense. As you get into camp, what’s the process of trying to figure out how much of that stuff to keep working on, and what to pare down?
Zimmer: That’s a good question. It’s more about what we can handle — kind of evaluating where we were this spring, and what we can do — and where we can head. Some of the things, guys might be learning a little different technique than what they were in some situations. It’s kind of like, when you put in a new blitz that week, they’ve got to learn to pick it up.
Q: What’s the key to finding the balance as a coach between doing new things on defense and sticking with the core principles that have worked for you over the past five years?
Zimmer: It’s difficult. Like, all the stuff we’re doing [in minicamp], we probably wouldn’t do in one game. We’d probably pare it down; ‘All right, this week, fellas, we’re going to major a little bit more in this. The next week, we might major in something else.’ The one thing we do, we have smart players on defense, and they’re experienced, so that does help.
Q: With the changes to pass interference [reviewable for the first time in 2019], how do you go about preparing for that as a coach?
Zimmer: I think part of it is, in the preseason, trying to figure out exactly how it’s going to go. The other thing you have to be aware of is, each game has a different number of cameras. So I have to be a little more aware of, if it’s a Thursday game or a Sunday night game, there’s going to be 32 cameras. So they’re going to catch a lot more stuff than if you’ve got one of the down-the-line [broadcast] crews on Sunday at 1 o’clock [Eastern time]. It’s 15 cameras [on Sunday afternoons] up to 32 [for prime-time games]. So that’s another variation you’ve got to work.
Q: Is that something you can drill at all in training camp practices, with some of the end-of-game scenarios you work on?
Zimmer: Yeah; we’re going to do that quite a bit — the last 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, different scenarios like that.
Q: How would you describe the fit with the new offensive coaches so far?
Zimmer: They’re doing a good job. I think it fits our offensive line better, the scheme that we’re running now — and we still have to find out when we get in pads, and we’re blocking people for real. It may not look great against the defense [in camp], because we’re not cutting people. We’re going to try to get some guys on the ground when we’re playing somebody else. As far as the offensive coaches coming together, it’s been great. They’re very communicative. They do a really good job of talking about things that work in the past, and combinations with what we’ve done here — and again, I think [they’re] trying to use our players in better positions, using them more to their skill set.
Q: How do you look at the running back workload going into the season? Do you see Alexander Mattison having a big role?
Zimmer: I think he’s got a chance. A young back, the [pass] protection is always the hardest thing. [Dalvin] Cook’s going to get a decent amount, because he’s a really good player. But being able to spell him — it might be C.J. Ham a little bit more on some of the protection things, or some of the things we do on third down, because he’s smart and good at those things. It might be using the tight end in the backfield a little more.
Q: With the outside zone running scheme, what’s the key to being able to drill that in practice when you’re not trying to cut-block defenders and take people to the ground?
Zimmer: In practice — when we’re not going against each other — they’re going to have to get on the ground and work on their cuts. The big thing with the zone scheme is, trying to get one guy knocked out of a gap and trying to create big seams. But that’s not all we’re going to do, either; we’re going to have hardball runs, and gap scheme runs and things like that.
Q: What position on the roster do you think has the most depth?
Zimmer: I think the defensive line has got quite a bit of depth. You look at some of the young guys — [Hercules] Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes, and then you’ve got Ifeadi [Odenigbo], he’s done a nice job in the spring. I thought he came on last year toward the end. And then you’ve got some young guys like [Armon] Watts and [Ade] Aruna. So those guys have a lot of depth, and it’ll be a good competition. But also, the other two spots, really — the receivers, trying to figure out who’s going to help us on special teams, [Brandon] Zylstra, it’s Jordan Taylor, it’s Bisi Johnson, it’s Dillon Mitchell, trying to figure out if these guys can figure out what to do, first. That’s the big thing. And I would say the second part of the offensive line, as well. Is it ‘AC’ [Aviante Collins], is it Rashod Hill, it [Dru] Samia, is it Brett Jones? I mean, there’s Cornelius Edison — that group right there.
Q: Kirk [Cousins] has talked about needing to be better on third [down] and 4-to-6 [yards]. What can he do to help himself improve there?
Zimmer: I think you saw it a little bit [in minicamp]; scrambling for him is a little bit unnatural, and so he’s been working on that. I know he had three or four in there [in the last practice of minicamp], which makes it difficult for a defense. All of a sudden, it opens up and now you’ve got a 5-yard gain. He’s been doing it quite a bit more in these OTAs, and I think that leads to getting more single coverage, because you’ve got a guy on the quarterback, and they’ve got to be a lot more careful in some of the zones, as well. But the other part is, once we figure out after the offseason, ‘This is what we’re really good at in these down-and-distances, and let’s go do that.’
Q: He ran some in Washington [when he scored 13 rushing touchdowns from 2015-17], right?
Zimmer: Yeah, and I think he’s so much more comfortable in this scheme. That lends to it, too. Last year, he’s trying to learn the scheme, trying to figure out protection, trying to figure out play calls, and everything was so new that [the running] part of the game was kind of second-[tier] to him.