EAGAN, Minn. – Mike Zimmer’s defense has ranked no lower than fourth in each of the last three seasons. Since he arrived in 2014, this unit been the franchise’s strength, shaping the identity of the Minnesota Vikings and serving as the catalyst behind two postseason runs.
After a week in training camp, the script has been flipped with that designation belonging to the offense, leaving Zimmer unhappy with the effort he has seen from his talented group of defenders.
“We have to play better on defense than we're playing right now,” Zimmer said. “We need to play a lot better. The offense has got a lot grit and fight and I haven't seen that much out of the defense yet. That's my major concern at this point.”
Zimmer’s comments come a day after the Vikings' offense dominated a handful of red zone periods during Wednesday’s practice. Kirk Cousins threw a total of four touchdowns against the first-team defense, including a series of three straight TDs to Adam Thielen, Tyler Conklin and Kyle Rudolph. Back-up quarterback Sean Mannion then went 2-of-3 on TD drives inside the 20-yard line.
Zimmer lauded the progress of the offense, which at the end of minicamp two months ago appeared several steps behind a group of coaches and players who have been running the same defensive system for the last six years.
While that continuity has been a critical part of Minnesota’s success, the defense’s urgency, or a lack thereof, seems to be the reason for Zimmer’s discontent.
“I think, as I’ve told a few of them, they’ve been together for quite a while now, and they think they’re pretty good so maybe we just go out and practice and it’s not the intensity level or whatever that we need to do,” he said. “They’re not making mistakes because they’ve been in the same defense for six years now. So it’s a little bit of, maybe, complacency. ‘Hey we’re in the top-five defense every year, blah, blah, blah, whatever.’”
Minnesota returns starters at every position on defense except for 3-technique tackle, which will be filled by free-agent signee Shamar Stephen, who played for the Vikings from 2014-17 before spending last year with Seattle.
Though Zimmer said he does not believe the lack of competition for starting jobs has anything to do with why the unit has played poorly since the pads went on in practice on Sunday, the Vikings' coach wants to see the same level of competitive fire from the defense as the offense has shown.
“I just think they need to get more competitive,” Zimmer said. “We need to come out here and compete every day. All the situations, the offense has won every time. So if they want to be great on defense, they’ve got to play with a chip on their shoulder and I haven’t really seen it yet.”
How might he light a fire under his players?
“I hope they watch this press conference,” Zimmer said.