EAGAN, Minn. – On Wednesday, Mike Zimmer joked that the Chicago Bears have something in the range of 800 plays. Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards followed up on Thursday by saying that Zimmer was not kidding.
Head coach Matt Nagy said it was “more like 750.”
No matter the number of plays, his impact on the Bears’ offense has been impressive. After finishing 29th in scoring last year, Chicago has jumped up to sixth. In turn, they have gone from the bottom of the division to the top.
“We are going to get new plays,” Zimmer said of matching up with Nagy’s creative offense. “There’s no doubt in my mind we are going to get new plays. But they’ve got their core group of plays they are going to run. Every week you are going to get new plays, you are going to get new formations, you are going to get new personnel groups.”
The distribution of the ball to different playmakers is one of Chicago’s most impressive feats. They have five pass catchers with between 24 and 37 receptions this year. In classic West Coast offense fashion, Nagy’s running backs have played a big role in the passing game. Tarik Cohen is the team’s leading receiver and Jordan Howard has added 12 more receptions.
“They have a different game plan probably for each team as far as how they match up defensively,” Edwards said. “They’re also going to add new concepts to what they do from week-to-week off of what they think could isolate you in the coverages and those types of deals. Nagy has brought in a lot of good concepts, whether it’s in the passing game or in the running game. The big thing for us is again, it’s more about us getting lined up and being able to execute our defensive call and knowing what’s coming at us, and then also during the course of the game…being able to adjust if they’re something new that we have to adjust to.”
At the same time, Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo is making his mark with the Vikings. The former Oakland and Philadelphia quarterbacks coach only had one chance at running his own offense and that came in the uber-dysfunctional Cleveland with the out-of-control Johnny Manziel.
With a much more stable franchise and established high-end quarterback, DeFilippo has the Vikings offense on track, ranking 15th in points and 14th in total yards this season despite a battered offensive line and the absence of Dalvin Cook for the majority of the year.
The two offensive minds that will battle on Sunday night represent the next wave of play callers — a group that has been influenced by generations of offensive minds.
“I think you are seeing a lot of those concepts spread around the league now,” DeFilippo said. “I think you are just always looking for innovative ways to move the football and different ways to put your playmakers in space. Whether it is old school west coast, whether it is new school spread offense, I think you are always looking for creative ways to put your playmakers in space. Those guys are doing a heck of a job with it.”
DeFilippo’s offense has relied much more upon two receivers, Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, who have combined for 136 catches. Cook’s injury took away some of the Vikings’ ability to use him as a playmaker in the way that Nagy gets the ball into Cohen’s hands.
“Each situation, each team is very unique because the guys on your team have different skillsets than the guys in Philly, Kansas City, Chicago,” said DeFilippo, who is routinely name-dropped for future head coaching positions . “I think the definition of coaching to me is putting your best players in space and doing what they do well. I think you find that out and I think you have enough in your arsenal to be able to do that and do it well. That is what we are doing here. There are some things that I really liked with what we did in say Philly or Cleveland or in Oakland that we did that just it doesn’t fit here. I think if you can wait through all those things, you can have a nice mix of things you felt comfortable you’ve done in the past and obviously new ideas as well.”
Two weeks ago against Detroit, Cook caught four passes out of the backfield and broke a game-changing 70-yard run.
“We can do a lot more things with him with his speed and catching ability,” Zimmer said.
And Nagy and DeFilippo each have roots in the Andy Reid coaching tree. Nagy was Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City and DeFilippo comes from the Eagles, whose head coach Doug Pederson was Nagy’s predecessor.
“I think you saw that trickle over with some of the things we did in Philadelphia,” DeFilippo said. “Obviously with Coach Reid and Coach [Doug] Pederson’s relationship with coach Reid.”
While coaching trees and influences are a widely-discussed topic in the NFL and a significant part of a coach’s legacy, Zimmer said that there is never a single influence with any offensive or defensive mind.
“I don’t think it’s just one guy you work for, I think it’s all the guys you work for,” Zimmer said. “You take what you think is good and use that. Other things you didn’t think were good, you take from somebody else….I still look at other guys. Guys like [Bill] Belichick and any of these guys are doing….I have respect for everybody, so I just try to keep learning and keep going from there.”