Mike Zimmer was a perpetual man in motion Thursday, stalking the secondary as he patrolled the practice field, his eyes on defensive backs for much of the morning.
In the span of a few minutes, the new Vikings coach got on cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for using poor technique as receiver Cordarrelle Patterson dusted him in a 1-on-1 drill. He slowly widened his hands to show another defensive back how he lost leverage to a receiver sprinting up the seam. Then he had some colorful language for rookie safety Antone Exum after one tentative play.
The defensive backs didn’t duck from the direct language. They know there are lessons to be learned.
“If he says something that you guys might think is mean, to us that’s just how he coaches us,” free safety Harrison Smith said with a grin. “Take the coaching point and apply it to the field. I kind of enjoy it. I think it adds a little color, and it’s a good time.”
Of all the projects Zimmer has taken on, the one that might require the most work is the team’s pass defense, which ranked 31st in the NFL last season. Zimmer only has so much on-field time with his defense during these organized team activities, which have been well-attended despite being voluntary. But he is trying to make the most out of every minute with his players, especially the defensive backs.
“They want to be coached,” Zimmer said. “I spent a lot of time back there in the past, so that’s really nothing new.”
Zimmer got his start in the NFL as a defensive backs coach for the Cowboys in 1994, and he was hands-on with his secondaries in stints as a coordinator in Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati. The Bengals ranked in the top 10 in pass defense in his final three seasons in Cincinnati, and only the Super Bowl champion Seahawks allowed fewer yards per attempt last season.
“We’ve watched a lot of Bengals film,” Smith said. “Just seeing some of those guys playing ball, it’s nothing magical. It’s Coach teaching them what to do and those guys doing it. It’s studying the playbook and knowing what your job is on every play and going out and executing.”
Here in late May, there is plenty of work left to be done for Zimmer to transform the Vikings, who allowed a league-high 37 passing touchdowns in 2013, into a top-10 pass defense.
The latest collective bargaining agreement has limited practice time and put restrictions on what coaches can ask players to do, but Zimmer feels these workouts have “tremendous value.” His goal is to get his players as comfortable in the scheme and as fluent in the new terminology as possible before training camp, when the coaching staff will reteach them all that they have learned and then some.
“We’re still in the early stages of what we’re learning, but I do feel like as a team we’re starting to work together a little bit better,” Zimmer said.
As far as the secondary is concerned, that was evident at Thursday’s OTA workout, the first time media was permitted to watch the veterans and rookies practice together. While the offense produced a few long gains, the secondary also made plays and picked off a pair of passes. Cornerback Marcus Sherels ran under a deep floater thrown by Christian Ponder and safety Kurt Coleman got an easy interception on one Matt Cassel overthrow.
In those brief moments, the blunt head coach had nothing to nitpick when it came to this work in progress.
“You can tell that he likes being on the DBs, coaching us up and giving us pointers — telling us which foot to step with, what to do in this formation” Smith said. “So having him around, it’s great because he’s the coach that he is, but also because you have another set of eyes to watch all of us.”