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Set up to succeed: Mike Zimmer got what he wanted this offseason, now results are expected

NFL: Minnesota Vikings Minicamp
Jun 15, 2021; in Eagen, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer looks on during drills at OTA at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings will open training camp Wednesday at TCO Performance Center. This is the seventh in a seven-part series examining Mike Zimmer’s team. Today, we look at the expectations surrounding the Vikings and their coach.

Mike Zimmer will begin his eighth season as Vikings coach on Wednesday when training camp opens at TCO Performance Center, putting him third on the franchise’s all-time list behind Bud Grant (18 seasons) and Dennis Green (10 seasons).

Zimmer, 65, was given added security last summer when he signed a contract that runs through 2023 — general manager Rick Spielman has the same deal — but then proceeded to watch is team get off to a 1-5 start en route to his first sub-.500 season (7-9) since Minnesota had the same record in Zimmer’s first year (2014). The Vikings continued their trend of missing the playoffs every other season under Zimmer.

There were plenty of excuses Vikings apologists could have found for the disappointing season. The fact the pandemic wiped out on-the-field work in the offseason and created constant uncertainty. The inability to put 65,000-plus screaming fans into U.S. Bank Stadium and make life difficult for opposing offenses. Injuries on defense and the decision by free agent defensive tackle Michael Pierce to opt-out because of concerns about COVID-19.

The were challenges faced by other teams as well and some of them thrived. The Vikings did not and the team’s ability to rebound this season likely will determine whether Zimmer returns for a ninth season in 2022 or is shown the door. Zimmer is well aware of the importance this season holds, but he also has been set up by Spielman and the front office to succeed.

Defense always has been Zimmer’s pride and joy, but a combination of injuries and questionable personnel decisions last season resulted in what the longtime defensive coordinator called the worst defense he has ever had. Zimmer wasn’t exaggerating. Under Zimmer, the Vikings had never finished below 11th in the NFL in points surrendered, or 14th in yards allowed before last year.

Last season the Vikings were 29th in points allowed and 27th in yards. The low point came on Christmas Day in New Orleans, when the Saints routed the Vikings, 52-33, and collected seven rushing touchdowns, including an NFL-record tying six from Alvin Kamara, along with 583 yards of offense and 36 first downs.

Spielman and Zimmer spent the offseason overhauling the defense, bringing in free agent defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to pair with Pierce in the middle. Pro Bowl left end Danielle Hunter, with a reworked contract, will return after missing last season following surgery to fix a herniated disc in his neck and linebacker Anthony Barr comes back after sitting out all but two games because of a torn pectoral muscle. Standout middle linebacker Eric Kendricks also is ready to go after sitting out the final five games because of a calf injury.

The secondary will have a different look with safety Harrison Smith the only regular from 2020 assured of starting in Week 1. Xavier Woods is expected to start at the other safety spot, while fellow newcomers Patrick Peterson, Bashaud Breeland and Mackensie Alexander (in the nickel) could be the corners.

While this defense is unlikely to be as good as the 2017 unit that finished first in the NFL in points and yards allowed, it should be a unit that moves back into the Top 10 in the league and is one Zimmer can at least recognize.

Zimmer will continue to have a revolving door of offensive coordinators, although it’s unlikely the offense will have a different look. Klint Kubiak, who was promoted to replace his father, Gary, after one season of Gary calling plays, will be the sixth offensive coordinator since Zimmer started.

Zimmer’s focus on running the ball, and using running back Dalvin Cook as much as possible, isn’t likely to change but this Vikings team has plenty of weapons with quarterback Kirk Cousins having receiving options such as Justin Jefferson, Adam Thielen, recent addition Dede Westbrook and tight end Irv Smith Jr.

The Vikings were fourth in total offense last season in the NFL and 11th in points. The unit could push into the Top 10 in points by opening up a bit more and that formula (along with far better special teams play) should give Zimmer’s team a good chance at ending Green Bay’s recent hold on the NFC North.

That’s not too much to expect. The NFC doesn’t have a dominant team and there’s no reason the Vikings can’t win the division and make a deep playoff run. If that happens, there won’t be any talk about Zimmer’s job security. Anything less, and it will be interesting to see who is running the show next season.