EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer dedicated significant time this offseason to emphasizing situational football, and it's paying off.
The Vikings this season rank eighth in the NFL in red zone percentage (58.1), and their 82.6 percent success rate in goal-to-go situations ranks fourth overall. In 2016, the Vikings ranked 28th and 26th, respectively, in the same categories.
Against the Falcons, Minnesota was able to get into the end zone twice while keeping Atlanta from scoring a touchdown. Zimmer said that much of what the team focused on practicing throughout the offseason was specific red zone or third-down situations.
"You have to understand the situation. If it's third-and-4 on the 8, you're not just playing the touchdown, you're playing [to get the first] down. So that's part of it," Zimmer told Twin Cities media members. "Part of it is understanding that everything's more condensed now. You know, so the advantage kind of goes to the defense a little bit, because now you're playing the sidelines and backline and things like that.
"And then, you know, offensively you've got to understand that the windows are going to be a lot tighter, so you're trying to get some more space width-wise," Zimmer continued. "If you can run the ball in against some of the different coverages that you get, that's important […]. It's a lot of stuff we try to teach."
Zimmer also highlighted Minnesota's success on third downs offensively. The Vikings improved from 19th (38.03 percent) in 2016 to No. 1 (45.95 percent) so far this season.
"We've made a lot of plays," Zimmer said. "Even on some of those third and longs, Adam Thielen comes up with a play, Case [Keenum] scrabbles for one. I think part of it is the different options that we have – [Laquon] Treadwell had one yesterday, Jarius [Wright] had one yesterday. Sometimes it's [Kyle] Rudolph. Being able to have man-beaters, zone-beaters, pressure-beaters, being able to have those concepts in there."
Here are four other topics Zimmer covered during his Monday media session:
1. Special teams stepping up
After special teams struggled in a few areas at Detroit, Zimmer and Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer both stressed last week that the unit needed to play better, and Zimmer was pleased with the significant improvement that he saw against the Falcons.
"I thought they were a lot better. I thought we covered much better. We ran faster, I felt like, we ran a lot faster this week," Zimmer said. "We punted the ball really good most of the day. We had the one field goal that hit the upright. I thought we did a good job in coverage.
"I was encouraged by the way that we covered yesterday," Zimmer added. "We're going to need to do that as we continue down the stretch."
One area Zimmer is still looking to improve is in the return game.
"We were a little better yesterday," Zimmer said. "We missed a block on one that we might have gotten it out a little bit farther. We just have to continue to work on it so we can get better at it. If Marcus [Sherels] can get the ball with some space in the punt return game, we can flip the field position, we've got a chance to really help the offense and go from there."
2. Mackensie making his mark
Mackensie Alexander has earned some attention so far in the second stretch of the season.
Over halfway through his second season, the second-round draft pick has shown up on film with some important plays, including a pass defensed at Atlanta Sunday.
Zimmer said that Alexander has continued to progress at the nickel corner position.
"Mackensie's a good athlete. And he really, honestly, is still learning the position," Zimmer said. "He'll have moments where he'll not do what he's supposed to do all the way, but he's getting a lot better with it. I think he's starting to understand where his help is, when we have man or zone, different things, understanding routes.
"I think [defensive backs coach Jerry Gray] has done a really good job with him," Zimmer added. "And Terence [Newman], as well. But he's a good athlete, and he's got good cover skills."
3. Success in the secondary
In a defensive performance that snapped Matt Ryan's streak of 30 games with at least one touchdown pass and limited Julio Jones to just 24 yards receiving, one week removed for a 253-yard outing, Zimmer was pleased with the way Minnesota's secondary played.
Efforts in run support by safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo prompted a couple of block-in-the-back penalties by the Falcons offense, and Sendejo also had a key pass breakup on a deep throw intended for Jones early in the third quarter.
"They played good. Both of them played really well," Zimmer said. "Harrison made some outstanding plays, Sendejo as well. The back end played really well yesterday, and I think that was a credit to them. I thought Trae Waynes played good, obviously Xavier [Rhodes] played well, and they understood the plan that we had to try to do."
4. Pressuring the passer
Although the Vikings didn't notch a sack against the Falcons, the defensive line effectively pressured Ryan and often caused him to make quick throws.
Zimmer said that Minnesota had to make some adjustments defensively in response to Atlanta's offense.
"I thought it was good," Zimmer said of the defensive line's performance. "[The Falcons] changed a lot of things up in the ball game that we anticipated getting, so we had to change things up, as well. That's part of the chess match that you go on from each play, to each series, to each half, each quarter.
"I thought Everson [Griffen] rushed well, Danielle [Hunter] had a couple good rushes, Tom [Johnson] had a couple, Linval [Joseph] had a couple," Zimmer continued. "It's not always about sacks. It's about affecting the quarterback."