The demise of Mike Zimmer’s defense was one of the silliest storylines broached by many throughout the 2019 season. Yes, the Vikings had some issues on that side of the ball — namely the dropoff of starting cornerbacks Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes — but that didn’t mean Minnesota’s defense had fallen off the map.
The Vikings finished the regular season tied for fifth in scoring defense, making them one of seven NFL teams in the Top 10 in that category to make the postseason. Still, it was fair to ask last week how the Vikings were going to stop a Saints offense that was led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and standout wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas entered Sunday’s playoff game in the Superdome having caught an NFL-leading 149 passes for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns.
The loss of nickel corner Mackensie Alexander and rotational corner Mike Hughes didn’t help matters. Ultimately, none of this bothered Zimmer.
He unveiled defensive packages that included veteran safety Andrew Sendejo in the nickel corner position and called for edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen to pressure the 6-foot Brees up the middle. Brees spent the afternoon looking lost and Thomas caught seven passes for a pedestrian 70 yards in the Vikings’ 26-20 overtime victory.
Zimmer’s brilliant game plan resulted in two reactions. 1) Where the heck was that creativity in key games earlier in the season? and 2) What’s the next trick in your defensive playbook, Mike?
Question No. 2 is the big reason there is so much anticipation about the Vikings’ second-round matchup with the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday afternoon in Santa Clara, Calif. Zimmer might be 63 years old but his defensive mind remains among the sharpest in the NFL and what we learned Sunday is that’s especially true when the season is on the line.
The Philadelphia Eagles embarrassed the Vikings, 38-7, in the 2017 NFC title game and it was pretty clear in New Orleans that Zimmer wasn’t about to see his pride-and-joy fail him again.
On Saturday, it will be one of the brightest young offense minds in the game who will take the next shot at delivering a knockout punch to Zimmer’s defense. Kyle Shanahan, who was born in Minneapolis in 1979 while his father, Mike, was an assistant on the University of Minnesota staff, led the 49ers to the top seed in the NFC this year in his third season as the 49ers’ coach.
Shanahan had stints as the offensive coordinator with the Texans (2008-09), Washington (2010-13), the Browns (2014) and the Falcons (2015-16) before being hired by San Francisco. There are two things that probably come to mind when Shanahan’s resume is mentioned.
The first is that his final two seasons in Washington were spent working with a backup quarterback named Kirk Cousins, It was long assumed that Cousins would end up back with Shanahan in San Francisco when Washington let him walk, only by that point the 49ers had acquired Jimmy Garoppolo from New England. The second is that Shanahan was the coordinator for the Falcons team that blew a 25-point lead against New England and lost in overtime in Super Bowl LI.
Zimmer, of course, doesn’t care about either of those things and is only focused on what Shanahan’s current offense might try to do to his defense. Last week, it was Thomas who scared Vikings fans. This time it’s former Iowa tight end George Kittle, who is from Madison, Wis. Kittle’s connections to Wisconsin and Iowa make it easy for Vikings fans to dislike him, but stopping him is another matter.
49ers TE George Kittle had 85 catches on without a single drop this year (34 more than any other TE), led the NFL in receiving yards after contact (252) and was the most dominant blocker at the position.
Such a force.
— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 8, 2020
Zimmer’s game plan against the Saints and offensive-minded coach Sean Payton was so good that instead of fearing Kittle, this time there’s an anticipation to see what type of curveball the Vikings attempt to throw at the 49ers to slow them down. Is Sendejo back in the slot trying to disrupt Kittle? Can standout linebacker Eric Kendricks handle him? Do the Vikings focus on making Garoppolo‘s life difficult by making this the game where linebacker Anthony Barr is finally turned loose to apply pressure?
The chess match between Zimmer and Shanahan will be great fun to watch. And after what Zimmer did to Payton’s offense last Sunday, one thing is certain: The talk that Zimmer’s defense had passed its expiration date couldn’t have been further from the truth.