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Mike Zimmer's Steady Hand Helping Turn Vikings Ship

EAGAN, Minn. — Mike Zimmer has a pair of NFC North titles, three total playoff appearances and 61 wins through six-plus seasons in Minnesota.

That's a strong résumé, but there's also an argument to make that the Vikings head coach has done his best work this season during what has been quite the roller-coaster ride in Minnesota.

With seven games to go, the Vikings have scratched and clawed their way to a 4-5 record after winning just once in their first six tries. The team can climb to .500 against the Cowboys organization that gave Zimmer his NFL start back in 1994.

Plenty in the organization give Zimmer credit for a determined approach to getting the ship steered in the right direction, although everyone knows the work isn't done.

"You saw that old-school Coach Zim' come out," said Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. "That, 'Let's get back to the basics, put the pads back and let's go back to work.' That was his demeanor of the whole bye week, leading up to the Packers week.

"When you win games it kind of takes that little pressure off everybody, and losing is not a good feeling," Cook added. "But you saw Coach Zim' go back to the basics and [say], 'Let's get back to the basics of football, knowing what we're doing, flying around, making plays.' That was our attitude."

Added quarterback Kirk Cousins: "I think it was coaching us, pointing out why we were losing and getting beaten, where we have to be better, but also pointing to a lot of positives and ways to be encouraged. I thought it was a good balance at that time of showing us why we can be a good team and dig ourselves out of the hole we were in. We still have a ways to go, but he was exactly who I would expect him to be and who we needed him to be for us to get back on the horse and get going again and putting forth a great effort."

Since the 1-5 start, Zimmer's squad has won three straight games, all against fellow NFC North teams.

And while Minnesota still has an uphill climb to reach the postseason, those within Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center said a main point of emphasis from Zimmer over the past month has been an increase in emotion and juice, both in practice and on game day.

"Energy. Not having fans in the stadium, we were lacking a lot of energy the first couple of weeks," said rookie Justin Jefferson. "But we found that energy, we found that swagger that we've been having and we came out ready to play football.

"The last three weeks, that's what we've been doing and we're looking to continue to do it," Jefferson added.

Jefferson has provided a spark to the Vikings offense that ranks first in the NFL in yards per play at 6.49. Minnesota is ninth overall with 382.3 yards per game, and is 15th at 26.2 points per game.

But Zimmer's baby has always been the Vikings defense, and the veteran defensive mastermind has seemingly pulled out all the stops this season.

Through nine games, the Vikings rank 24th with 383.6 yards allowed per game, and are 23rd with 27.4 points allowed per game.

And ever since the bye, the unit has played with an increased swagger, setting a new season-low in points allowed per game in each of the past three wins (22 points to Green Bay, 20 to Detroit and 13 to Chicago).

"They're starting to mature a little bit, and obviously they're getting a little bit of confidence now," Zimmer said. "I think it's been three games here, the last three games, where the other team has had the ball with a chance to win the game and we've been able to put the fire out, I guess.

"The more times you do that, the more times you believe that you can do it," Zimmer added. "And secondly, I think they're starting to understand what we're trying to do conceptually with the calls and things like that as well."

Give plenty of credit to Zimmer for the recent defensive surge, as he has confused opposing offensives with his schemes and play design.

That evolution has taken time, Zimmer, said, because of the host of young players who have been thrust into prominent roles in 2020.

"It's very unique, I guess is the best way to say it, because you're always trying to figure out how to affect the other team," Zimmer said. "But on the same token, you're trying to figure out what your guys can do and how much they can handle and how you can work through that whole process.

"We'll put some things in during the week and throw them out by the time the game gets here because it's too complicated or they're not handling it well or whatever the reason is," Zimmer added. "But, yeah, it's been unique trying to fit all the different pieces and still affect the offense because that's the reason you do it, to affect the offense. But you still have to figure out who you are and how you can put that together."

Zimmer's defense ranked 11th or better in points allowed per game in each of his first six seasons with the Vikings.

And while the unit might not climb that high by the end of the season, Zimmer's group has been strong on third downs, an area the defense has seemingly always excelled at in recent years.

The Vikings rank fourth on that down so far in 2020, having allowed opponents to convert 35.2 percent of the time (37 of 105 plays).

Aside from not allowing a single third-down conversion to Seattle in Week 5, Minnesota did its best work in its most-recent game against Chicago, as the Vikings held the Bears to just two conversions on 11 tries.

"We were able to change up the looks on them … we gave them some pressure looks, we gave them some coverage looks," said Adam Zimmer, the Vikings Co-Defensive Coordinator and linebackers coach. "I think that's one area that we work extremely hard on every week. We walk through a bunch of third-down plays.

"We study the third downs several times a week just trying to get the best plan for how to attack these guys, and it's been really successful for us in the past," Adam Zimmer added. "All of us sit in there together and come up with best plan to attack them on third downs and that's why I think we've had so much success on third downs around here over the years."

Zimmer said he's tried to keep a steady hand this season, which hasn't been easy as the Vikings (and all other NFL teams) navigated a virtual offseason and COVID-19 protocols on what has been a unique year to say the least.

He's also continued to rely on an old friend in Hall of Famer coach Bill Parcells. The two coached in Dallas together from 2003-06, and stay in regular contact.

Zimmer said while Parcells never had to coach through a pandemic, he always enjoys the advice and banter.

"He called me a couple times [Tuesday], I believe. I talk to him every week," Zimmer said. "He has never been through it, these kinds of things we're going through, so he doesn't really talk to me about that kind of stuff. I kind of talk to him about some of that.

"But for instance, the other night — this is something I'll throw out there — he said, 'I really loved your uniforms the other night.' I said, 'Why, Coach?' " Zimmer explained. "He said when he was a young coach, they told him if you wear all-white at night and you're on the road, that your offense can see the uniforms better and you can perform better. I thought that was kind of interesting, but those are some of the things he talks about."

With seven games to go, the Vikings aren't about to start making plans for the playoffs anytime soon. But if they can keep up their recent intensity and winning ways, perhaps Zimmer will get his fourth chance to coach in the playoffs.

You can bet the Vikings will be following his lead, just as they've done in recent weeks.

"I think the job that Zim' has done with this team this year is exceptional. I mean, you look at some of the things we've been through," said Vikings Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak, a former head coach himself. "It was a different year all the way from the start of training camp, and you're sitting there sitting at, what were we, 1-5? But you keep everybody together, you keep everybody positive, you keep everybody working, and then good things happen to you.

"It's a credit to how he's held people together in this building, on the field, and the reward is coming out there when you watch what's going on the past few weeks," Kubiak added. "Having done that for a while, I know how difficult that is, and for me to watch him do it, I think it's been pretty special. Hopefully we keep it going."

Added wide receiver Adam Thielen: "We have a lot of faith in him and who he is as a leader, who he is as a coach, and we're going to trust that. We're going to trust that process, keep going to work for him, keep fighting for him, and I know he's doing the same. Everybody just keeps fighting, and it starts at the top."