Skip to main content

News | Minnesota Vikings –

Donatell Discusses Initial Plan for Vikings Defense & Personal Approach

Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell's résumé is lengthy.

His energy level and approach to the game of football, however, remain as fresh as the day he entered the NFL 32 years ago.

Donatell, 65, spoke to Twin Cities media members Thursday afternoon about joining new Head Coach Kevin O'Connell's staff.

Asked how he adapts to an ever-changing league and continues connecting with younger players, Donatell smiled.

"Fair question. I love it," Donatell said. "That's what I am – I'm going to be like this until I'm done."

He pointed out the importance of welcoming new ideas and philosophies.

"You gotta work at it, because there's more layers when you get up there in age a little bit. When you can combine staying current and using your experience, then you've got something," Donatell said. "And that's my intention. So, what do I do? I listen to young people. And I seek, and I put energy into learning them.

"My sons are coaches and they're at a younger age. And they played. I ask them a lot of things because views have changed," Donatell continued. "People, they get up here and say, 'These kids have changed' and this and that. People have always been changing since the beginning of time. It's our job, as leaders, to work to relate."

It's why there's so much excitement around collaboration between Donatell and O'Connell – who was, if you're curious, 5 years old when Donatell got his first NFL coaching job with the Jets in 1990.

O'Connell introduced Donatell, along with new Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips and Special Teams Coordinator Matt Daniels. In describing Donatell's talent and what he brings to the table, O'Connell said the following:

"When you're an offensive head coach and you've coached in this league long enough, when you get an opportunity like this to put together a coaching staff … you really start thinking about it from the standpoint of, 'What do you not like to play against? What's the hardest defensive scheme to play against? What keeps you up at night as you game plan as an offense?' Guys like Ed Donatell," O'Connell said. "He's been doing it for a long time in this league. One of the best secondary coaches that we have in our league. I think he's been in a role for a few years now, in a leadership role that shows me he's primed to take over our vision of how we want to play defense here with the Vikings.

"It was a no-brainer to me to reach out to Ed at the beginning of this process, and just throughout; getting to know him and getting a feel for where he's at in his career, he's the perfect guy for me because he shares the mantra of wanting to lead, teach and motivate. That's who he is. He's an ultimate positive guy," O'Connell continued. "I could not be more excited to add a guy that's coached Hall of Famers, been to the playoffs a ton of times, won Super Bowls. He knows what it's like to play really good defense, and he knows what it's like to have success in this league. It's a huge part of why he's here."

View photos of new Vikings Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell in photos from his time with the Broncos.

Donatell said he quickly and easily connected with O'Connell during the interview process.

"That's the way I stay young. I have to be around young, open, progressive, new ideas," Donatell said. "I welcome the science of the NFL. We use this term, 'analytics' — we need both. It's not this [pushes hand to the side], it's this [puts fingers together], that makes it work."

Donatell was drawn to the leadership vision sketched by O'Connell and Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah.

"This was a vision of growth, of collaboration, of growing new people, growing leaders. And I wanted to be a part of that," Donatell said. "I see myself as a team-builder, and to jump on with somebody who's young and progressive and on the top, cutting edge of things, was really attractive to me."

Below is a deeper dive into Donatell's approach to coaching, vision for Minnesota's defensive scheme and his views of the Vikings roster.

Creating a 'fun' culture

Donatell offered a good-natured public service announcement to the Vikings defense: football is fun.

"Messages to the players: We've got a lot of work to do, but nobody's going to have more fun doing it. We're going to have a good time," he said. "We're hiring a staff of teachers, positive teachers. These guys … will grow young men, not just teach the scheme. It's going to be a positive nature, we're going to have a great time and these relationships are going to be very important to our success."

A follow-up question later prompted Donatell to add, "You should have some fun. Why wouldn't you do that?"

"If you can coach in this great league, have fun and have this great lifestyle – that's the ultimate. And I choose to have both – to be a part of success and to have a good time," he said.

Donatell emphasized the importance of culture and team chemistry, two themes O'Connell and Adofo-Mensah both have also highlighted.

"We want a cultural advantage. We want a culture where a guy puts on a Vikings uniform and just plays better than where he came from," Donatell said. "We want a culture where guys want to come here.

"Culture means everything. Everybody says that, 'This guy's over here. He plays this technique, this position. Do your job.' It's not just that. It's the environment and the community," he added. "Everybody, in the jobs you have, how important is the community and the friends you have and the relationships you have to your success? It's big."

Expect multiple fronts

Donatell's background includes coaching 4-3 defensive fronts, as well as 3-4 defenses.

The last time the Vikings relied on a 3-4 base defense was in 1985, Bud Grant's final season at the helm in Minnesota.

But it sounds like the team likely will bring it back this season under Donatell.

"You'll ask about the scheme we're gonna implement here; it's going to be a multiple, dictating 3-4 and 4-3 setup. Just know we'll have both fronts. That will make us hard to play against," Donatell explained.

"Everything else we'll do will be engineered to make it hard for the quarterback – that's physically and mentally," he said. "Keystone foundation points: we're going to set edges. That's our outside linebackers, defensive ends – we're going to set hard edges."

He additionally mentioned "great tackling" and making takeaways a focus.

"That has to happen. That has to be an edge for this team – get the ball for our offense so they can … score points so we can win," Donatell said.

Understandably, there will be a transition period for players who haven't ever – or recently – played in a 3-4 defense. But Donatell isn't a stranger to altering defenses, nor is he intimidated by the idea of doing so.

"If you look at, just in the 3-4, with my great partner Vic Fangio, we rolled into San Francisco about 11 years ago and we did a four-year stint there. And they already had some 3-4 setup going there. We rolled into Chicago and their defense had started to decline and they were 4-3, so it was a major change there," Donatell said. "We did that exercise, then we rolled into Denver four years later. It helps to have been through the drill a couple times.

"The only thing I want to do different here is do it better. You should get better at things if you've had a couple runs through it," he added. "I don't fear anything. I want to put all my experience together to fix it and get it right."

Donatell also reminded that the Vikings will likely play a lot of nickel defense as a response to offenses using multiple-receiver packages.

"In the nickel, we'll play in an even front and an odd front. So that won't be much changed. There will be a lot of carry-over to our guys. When change happens, there's a lot of uncertainty and some people are uncomfortable with change," he said. "But we welcome that; that's a good thing. That's opportunity.

"We don't know where we're going right now exactly," he continued. "There's so much that our staff has to do and myself has to do to learn our players to learn our talents to learn their minds. Our emphasis right now is to learn our people. And when you learn our people, you can take them somewhere, and that's what our intention is."

Thoughts on the roster

While the Vikings roster is certain to undergo further change between now and Week 1, Donatell is excited about the core group of players on Minnesota's defense.

He was asked specifically about Danielle Hunter playing in a 3-4 scheme, and Donatell expressed confidence in Hunter being capable of playing in either front as a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end.

When asked about additional players he's looking forward to working with, Donatell opted against pinpointing anyone in particular.

"I don't want to get into names. You guys know the core guys that are here, and then some guys aren't under contract," Donatell said. "If I left somebody's name out, you know, I wouldn't want to do that. We think all these guys are potential starters or potential stars. Our thing is to connect with them and then see how far we can take them."

And will players be invited to provide input on the defense?

"Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. How can you be the best if you're not tapping into people and getting their views? And I want to grow their views. If we grow them, even though they're better players in certain areas, then they can give you back more. That's really the secret thing," Donatell said. "We are the coaches and we are the leaders and there are parameters, but when it flows and they create something you haven't seen before, that's really powerful."