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Vikings defense makes strides with Zimmer's scheme, creating optimism for next season

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minnesota — The Minnesota Vikings had just finished a mediocre season with a modest victory over a last-place team, hardly a setting where raw emotion was expected.

Yet there was coach Mike Zimmer, when asked specifically at his postgame news conference about the improvement made by second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes, pausing briefly for composure.

The gruff, demanding Zimmer's voice cracked as he carefully revealed how Rhodes approached him in the locker room with gratitude for his tutelage and guidance.

"He's got a chance to be a really good football player," Zimmer said, after Rhodes stifled Chicago wide receiver Alshon Jeffery throughout the win Sunday over the Bears.

For all the dissatisfaction Zimmer expressed in his team's performance during his first season as a head coach, that competitive drive keeping him restless as the Vikings wobbled their way to a 7-9 finish, he was clearly moved by the sign of a young player finding his groove at a difficult position.

One of the early themes associated with Zimmer and his coaching style, which will ultimately have a significant influence on his success, was his self-described pride in being "a fixer."

There was a lot to fix when he took over nearly a year ago, particularly with a defense that gave up an NFL-worst average of 30 points per game, and upgrades are needed still in several areas.

This group, though, was unquestionably better in 2014. Player after player, in interviews Monday during the annual cubicle clean-out at the team facility, pointed to Zimmer for the progress.

"He's brought a completely different tone around here of just being professional, playing aggressive, tough, disciplined football," safety Harrison Smith said.

Zimmer had been an assistant coach in the league for 20 years, including 14 as a defensive coordinator, before accepting this job. The word was out. There were no secrets. The Vikings knew they were getting an intense, hard-nosed new boss.

"That's the type of coach he is, but at the same time he's one of those guys that you immediately fall in love with and you immediately want to run through a brick wall for because he seems to know when he needs to take care of guys and when he needs to push guys," defensive end Brian Robison said.

PHOTO: Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (17) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, right, after catching a pass during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)
Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (17) is tackled by Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes, right, after catching a pass during the second half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

The Vikings finished 11th in the NFL with an average of 21.4 points per game allowed, better than seven of the 12 teams that made the playoffs. They were 14th with an average of 344.7 yards per game given up, better than five playoff teams. They tied for ninth with 41 sacks.

"Not that we're where we want to be, but it's trending that way," Smith said.

The Vikings struggled in several games to stop the run, so better tackling will be high on the to-do list for 2015. Takeaways will be as well, since the Vikings forced only 19 turnovers to rank tied for 25th in the league.

There were late lapses that led to losses, such as the winning touchdown drive by the Bills in Buffalo that featured a fourth-and-20 conversion and the 30-point second-half by the Dolphins at Miami.

Adjusting to the assignments of the new scheme took time, too. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn acknowledged not listening as much as he should have to Zimmer.

"It's all about trust. When they tell me to do this, do that, even though I've been in the league for a while, I still start to question, 'Man, why do you want me to do this?'" Munnerlyn said. "Just go out there and do it."

For all the mistakes and disappointments, though, there were just as many success stories. Rookie linebacker Anthony Barr had several strong games before hurting his knee. Defensive end Everson Griffen was a force at times in his first season as a starter. Rhodes tied for fourth in the NFL with 18 passes defensed.

"He was just a big piece of clay, really, that had a ton of ability," Zimmer said.

There's more left to mold in his second year.


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