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Vikings Defense's Disguise Challenging Offense with Cat-and-Mouse Game

EAGAN, Minn. – When Kevin O'Connell took the helm in Minnesota, he knew exactly what he wanted in a defensive coordinator.

The new head coach placed emphasis on experience, teaching ability and scheme, and Ed Donatell checked all three boxes.

O'Connell said Donatell's system, intertwined with the Vic Fangio tree, is one that has spread to multiple teams across the league.

"That family of defense has really caused a lot of people problems, and it's because it puts a lot of stress on the quarterback on the other side post-snap, puts a lot of stress on the communication of the offense to make sure they are able to play within the framework once that ball is snapped," O'Connell explained. "That's where you really have to define the detail as an offense. That's what I love about practicing against it every day. It forces us to really learn what we're capable of and what we're doing, instead of just taking advantage of every look we see pre-snap.

"But first and foremost, the person, the team, the teacher, the experience level, the support he can be for me as a first-time head coach … the opportunity to bring him in was something I was really excited about," O'Connell added of Donatell.

Veteran cornerback Patrick Peterson, entering his 12th NFL season and second in Purple, bought into Donatell's system from his first position group meeting this spring.

Peterson said Donatell has emphasized "stealing the second from the quarterback" by disguising pre-snap looks and making the QB hesitate just another moment. 

"Lining up in certain things to steal that second is going to make our job that much easier. Because when you have a confused quarterback, you don't have a clear indication on where to go with the ball, that gives Danielle [Hunter] and 'Z' (Za'Darius Smith) an opportunity to get that much more pressure on him," Peterson said. "I love the scheme. I love the way it's structured; I love the way that it's built, and I'm just excited to see how it's going to unfold here in the fall."

Quarterback Kirk Cousins can attest to the difficulty of the defense, which he's faced from Chicago (Fangio as defensive coordinator from 2015-18) and Denver (Donatell as defensive coordinator from 2019-21) and now in practice against his defensive teammates.

Cousins called it a "muddy" scheme to try to figure out.

"When you drop back, you don't know quite what you're getting – and obviously as a quarterback or any position on offense, you want to know what you're getting," Cousins explained. "They're doing a good job with disguise, making things look the same, and that's the best word I can say – is making things muddy as I drop back.

"I think it's a great scheme and they do a great job, but it just makes practice difficult," he added.

During quarterback meetings, O'Connell said, he could pause the film just before the snap and ask the players to identify what defense the opponents are showing.

Chances are, the quarterbacks would strike out. And it isn't because they haven't been studying.

"A lot of times, more often than not, they would be just guessing and probably wrong," O'Connell said. "Until that post-snap play declares and those guys understand all of the different rules and tools that they have at their disposal to tilt the scales in our advantage defensively – which is hard to do with the great offenses that exist in this league, the great quarterback play that we have in our league, and all the playmakers and people's ability to marry the run and the pass.

"Everybody's doing it, so you really have to try to combat that with the complexity on defense," O'Connell continued. "But our defensive guys all know what to do, the communication is premium and we have very few snaps where we are not doing our jobs as a group of 11."

Assuming the defensive players are confident in their assignments, Cousins noted, it becomes a game of cat-and-mouse between them and the offense.

"If a guy thinks he can make a play across the field from his current alignment … the last thing he wants to do is leave that alignment to tell me something," Cousins said. "So that's why you want to get guys who can run, who can jump, who can cover and understand the percentages of what's coming so they can start to lean certain ways and hold things longer, so you try to take advantage of that.

"If you're going to do that and not get to where you need to be, then we need to find a way to make you pay," he added.

From Cousins' point of view in the pocket, having versatile players on the roster is most important to execute Donatell's scheme as it's intended.

A lot of responsibility will be on inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, the latter of whom the Vikings signed in free agency.

"If you can trust the linebacker to cover, to pressure and stop the run, then you don't have to put him in one role, and then you can give him a variety of responsibilities physically and mentally," Cousins said. "Same with corners and safeties, if you trust a safety to cover receivers, then you can ask him to play man-to-man, but it doesn't look like man-to-man because that is a safety and not a corner. There is a variety of things you can do, but it helps to have smart players and versatile players – and we have both."