Inside the Midas Touch of Mike Zimmer

Mike Zimmer's defense is allowing just 17.1 points per game this season. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minnesota -- A Mike Zimmer defensive team meeting is intense. Players sit upright in a meeting room at the Minnesota Vikings' practice facility. They're on the edges of their seats. Their eyes are wide, frenzied and occasionally darting. Their brains churn. Their bodies sweat. No one knows when it's coming.

Everson Griffen! What technique does the cornerback play on this call?

Harrison Smith? Who has contain?

"You've got to be on your toes," defensive lineman Brian Robison said. "He'll ask you an off-the-wall question at any time."

Zimmer's teaching style is but a small part of the process that drives the Midas Touch of the football. Wherever Zimmer has coached, be it in 14 years as an NFL defensive coordinator or 25 games as the Vikings' head coach, the defense has improved and then excelled.

In Minnesota, Zimmer joined a franchise that allowed an NFL-high 30 points per game in 2013. The Vikings hadn't finished among the top five in points allowed in 29 years and hadn't led the league in points allowed in 42 years. Through Week 10 of 2015, opponents have scored the NFL's second-fewest points per game (17.1) against them -- just a hair behind his previous team, the Cincinnati Bengals. Not coincidentally, the Vikings are alone atop the NFC North entering Sunday's showdown with the Green Bay Packers.

Zimmer has his methods, some obvious and some secretive, and no one but him knows them all. But I set out this week to understand a few, and the most notable is the way he uses meetings to teach accountability, aggression and confidence. Retired linebacker Ben Leber, who remains close to the team via his work on the Vikings Entertainment Network, said he has never encountered the approach that current players attribute to Zimmer.

"The students become the teachers," Leber said. "In those meetings, you have to be ultra-attentive. You take every note. You're thinking all the time. He's challenging them in peer-to-peer situations. [Defensive end] Everson Griffen might not care what technique a cornerback is going to use, and it has no relevance to his job, but now he has to pay better attention because he wants to make sure he has an answer when he's called on. That's how you build an environment of guys playing smart and fast. You can't hide. You hear about accountability all the time, but this takes it to a whole new level."

On the field, Zimmer has built a scheme that is complicated in the way a large buffet initially intimidates simple eaters. When he first saw the playbook last year, Robison's first reaction was, "Holy crap, this is going to be an undertaking." But when he understood the underlying philosophy -- multiple plays out of a handful of formations -- it made sense.

"I remember just being impressed with the multitude of ways he can attack," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "But he takes care of calling the plays during games, so as players we don't have to think about that during the game."

Here's one example. After reviewing most of the Vikings' defensive plays this season, I was convinced they were among the league's most frequent users of the blitz. It's rare when you don't see five or more players stacked on the line of scrimmage, and in television broadcasts, Zimmer's scheme is often described as blitz-heavy.

In reality, the Vikings have blitzed on 30.1 percent of opposing dropbacks this season, fewer than 14 teams.

"What you think you see," Greenway said, "is not always reality."

When he does blitz, however, Zimmer's defense displays an unusual level of discipline to disguise where it's coming from.

"All coaches preach it, but you see it from the Vikings more than anyone," Leber said. "If they're blitzing from depth, you don't know it until the snap. If you're a linebacker, there is always that urge to lean forward and get on the tips of your toes when you're blitzing. You can't get away with that against NFL quarterbacks. But, per a man, you never see that with the Vikings.

"You see that from the guys at the back end as well. If a linebacker is blitzing, and a safety has to rotate behind him to cover that spot, a lot of times in the NFL you'll see that starting before the snap. It's a pretty good tell where the blitz is coming from. But the Vikings never show that. They're very disciplined in that area."

Some of that can be attributed to Zimmer's teaching, but as cornerback Captain Munnerlyn acknowledged, the rest is a function of Zimmer collecting players with the skills needed to excel in his scheme. At one point last season, Munnerlyn wasn't sure he was one of them.

"I just didn't like what he was asking me to do," Munnerlyn said. "I was used to a different style of playing, being all over the place, but he wants you to do certain things and sometimes be more of a finesse player. I realized I had to start listening to him more, and that's what I did. Once you get it, you realize that the scheme is great."

Zimmer has worked to find fast linebackers and big cornerbacks. In the past two years, the Vikings have drafted linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, both of whom run the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, along with 6-foot-1 cornerback Trae Waynes. And all of them, it appears, are above-average tacklers.

Tackling statistics can be misleading, but one way to evaluate the collective open-field ability of defenses is by the way they play screens. Opponents have run 36 screens against them this season, the 10th-highest total in the league, but have averaged only 4.25 yards per play -- the fifth lowest in the league.

"For the most part," Leber said, "guys get nowhere against this team on screens. Those are all one-on-one tackling situations."

It's fair to stop short of handing Zimmer and the Vikings a permanent crown as an elite defense. As the chart shows, more than half of their opponents rank No. 25 or lower in scoring offense. But as fall turns to winter, the Vikings are playing the type of football that sparks deep playoff runs. The Midas Touch is real and alive in Minnesota.