EAGAN — For the second offseason in a row the Minnesota Vikings added a well-traveled former head coach and coordinator to their staff.
Last year head coach Mike Zimmer was thrilled about the contributions of Gary Kubiak, calling his hire one of the best things that happened during his career. This time around Zimmer will have help on the defensive side from Dom Capers, who was either a D-coordinator or head coach from 1992 until 2017 and then spent time on Jacksonville’s staff as an adviser last year.
On a conference call Tuesday, Zimmer explained the thinking behind the Capers hire.
“I had written down toward the end of the season that I’d kind of like to get a another defensive guy in there that has a background in a lot of different things,” Zimmer said. “There’s some things that he’s done that intrigue me that I’d like to know more about. It’s more about just having another set of eyes in there, you see things, and also being able to say ‘hey, we used to run this pressure, what do you think about this?’ or as we’re putting the defensive package together, being able to discuss different things and go from there.”
Capers largely ran a 3-4 defense during his lengthy career, which is different from Zimmer’s history with a 4-3 scheme. He masterminded seven top-10 defenses in his first nine years as a DC or HC with his superstars often being pass rushing outside linebackers like Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd and Lamar Lathon. In 1996 with the Panthers Greene and Lathon each posted more than 13 sacks.
Even late into Capers’ career in Green Bay he found success with outside linebackers rushing, including 25 sacks in three seasons Julius Peppers in three years while playing the OLB position for the first time in his career at ages 34-36.
“The biggest thing in this league is figuring out who your best players are and then adapting what you’re doing to fit the players,” Capers said on Tuesday.
The player who naturally fits comparisons to Capers’s stars of the past is Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, who has said that he would like to rush the passer more often. That hasn’t come to fruition, however, even after he agreed to a long-term contract last offseason.
Here’s Barr’s pass-rush rates and pressure success each year he’s been in the league.
|Year||Pass snaps||Rushes||Rush %||Pressures||Pressure %|
As you can see, Barr has been consistent in his ability to create pressure when given the opportunity. Early in his career Barr was used in double-A gap blitzes that put the linebackers up at the line of scrimmage but opponents found blocking solutions so Zimmer switched to more zone blitzing in recent years.
Why didn’t he rush Barr more often? It may have been difficult for Zimmer to find snaps to rush his former first-round pick because edge rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter were getting the job done without any extra help. The Vikings’ ability to reach the quarterback with four rushers has been one of the reasons behind the defense’s long-term success. But with Griffen’s future uncertain, the Vikings may need to get more creative. And Capers said he appreciates that Zimmer is always willing to make changes.
“This league is such a copycat league that when somebody does something and does it well, you’re going to see other people study that, and there normally aren’t a lot of secrets because we study each other so much,” Capers said. “Mike’s always been ahead of the game and does a lot of things that are very innovative.”
Since Barr’s breakout season in 2015 he has been more along the lines of a solid linebacker rather than a game-changer. Zimmer would argue that Barr’s mix of unique size and high intelligence is hard to replace but he has graded by PFF as strong against the run and in pass rushing but average at best in coverage. He has ranked in the top 10 in pressures each year except 2017 and top 20 in run defense in ’18 and 26th of 59 in ’19 but last year he finished 36th of 57 in coverage.
From ’19 to ’20, Barr’s cap hit will jump from $5.6 to $12.7 million, which makes it even more pressing to get the most out of him.
With Eric Wilson developing as a solid pass rusher and coverage linebacker, the Vikings may consider more fronts that include three defensive linemen and three linebackers. While Capers may be known for the 3-4 defense, in recent years with the Packers it was most often 3-3-5 (nickel) because of opponents’ commitment to three-receiver sets.
The depth of talent at linebacker and defensive line from players who have been developed under Zimmer and his new Co-DCs Andre Patterson and Adam Zimmer gives the Vikings all sorts of options, especially surrounding Barr. And now they have a New Ideas coach in Capers to help them maximize their talent.