MANKATO, Minn. -- For years, the Minnesota Vikings' defense has been defined by their defensive line, and specifically the pass rush that their defensive ends generated. Long after the "Williams Wall" stopped making the Vikings' run defense one of the most formidable in the NFL, the team could count on its ends -- specifically Jared Allen -- lined up with one foot far behind the other in a three-point stance, ready to surge around the edge of the offensive line after the quarterback.
Now, Allen is gone, the Vikings' old Cover 2 scheme has been ushered out in favor of one that puts a different set of responsibilities on defensive linemen and the team's pass rush is very much a work in progress.
The Vikings only had two sacks in last Friday's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders, and though Pro Football Focus credited the Vikings with another seven hurries, coach Mike Zimmer said he wasn't happy with how the pass rush performed. Zimmer's defensive scheme asks linemen to set up in a more neutral stance, often engaging blockers on the way to the quarterback to give linebackers room to run, and the Bengals' defenses were the days of big sack totals for Vikings defensive ends are probably over; Michael Johnson and Geno Atkins posted the only seasons of 10 or more sacks in the Bengals' defense in Zimmer's six seasons as the coordinator there.
That doesn't mean the Vikings can't pressure the quarterback -- the Bengals still were 10th in the league with 43 sacks last year -- but there is an adjustment period for linemen in the new defense.
"We've got calls that tell them to move offensive linemen, to choke off blocks -- that's their No. 1 priority -- and we've got calls that say, 'Pin your ears back and let's go get it,'" defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. "Whereas, what they've played before is just, 'Pin your ears back and let's go get it.' I think that's been the biggest change for all of them."
Patterson's relationship with Zimmer dates back to their days coaching together at Weber State in the 1980s, and they've developed their philosophies of defensive line play as they've worked with one another.
"We coach from the feet up; it's taking good steps with your feet, putting your hands in the right place," Patterson said. "All those things, Day 1, were what we started with, and we drill every single day. I thought that part of it, in the first ballgame, we executed very well. It was a dramatic change from when you watched them on tape a year ago to what they did in that game. I was really pleased with that part of it."
The Vikings still have a ways to go before all of it will click in a game, though.
"The key is to affect the quarterback," Patterson said. "Obviously, we want to get him on the ground. But we want to affect the rush so the quarterback feels he has to step right, step left, move up in the pocket. Now, throws are too high, too short, intercepted, and that helps us win games, more than sacking him. Now, obviously, they know they get paid because they sack the guy. There's a buy-in factor, that they have to understand it's not about sacking him at all costs. It's about all the parts working together."