The pass rush Denver placed on Carolina in Super Bowl 50 drew plenty of attention, but Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer also noticed the Broncos pass coverage.
Zimmer, whose team fell just short of defeating Denver in 2015, knows a good defense is formed around effective pass rushers and cover guys. Having spent 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator and six more coaching defensive backs prior to taking the helm in Minnesota, Zimmer will never tire of developing a defensive unit that will shut down an opponent.
"One thing that hurts passing offenses is a good pass rush and guys that can cover," Zimmer said in a conversation with media last week at the NFL Owners meetings in Boca Raton, Florida. "We're looking for those guys all the time."
Denver demonstrated both aspects in its 24-10 Super Bowl win over Carolina. While a majority of analysts' predictions favored the 15-1 Panthers, the Broncos defense – led largely by outside linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware – successfully handled Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and the offense.
Zimmer mentioned that Denver boasted a dynamic defense across the board, but the Broncos Super Bowl victory came down to their ability to pressure the quarterback and eliminate his targets.
"The Broncos had guys that could cover, guys that could rush," Zimmer said. "That's kind of been our philosophy as well."
The Vikings have been building on that capacity through both veteran players and new additions. Defensive end Everson Griffin led the team in 2014 with 12 sacks and again in 2015, recording 10.5 sacks and 76 quarterback hurries to earn his first career trip to the Pro Bowl.
The Vikings added another promising pass rusher in defensive end Danielle Hunter, whom they selected 88th overall in 2015. Hunter made a significant impact on Minnesota's defense as a rookie, playing in 14 games and starting one. Hunter's 6.0 regular-season sacks ranked second on the team as well as second among all rookies, behind Redskins outside linebacker Preston Smith (8.0).
Defensive ends Tom Johnson and Brian Robison added 5.5 and 5.0 sacks, respectively.
"We have been decent," Zimmer said as a guest on Pro Football Talk Live with Mike Florio. "Everson has done a nice job for us, Tom Johnson inside, [tackle] Sharrif Floyd has still got some room to develop. Danielle Hunter had a nice rookie season, and Brian Robison helped us in there."
View some of the best images of the defensive line from 2015.
While teams still rely on larger-bodied nose tackles who are necessary to stop the run, it seems more often than not, the NFL is becoming more pass-focused, increasing the need for skilled pass rushers all the more. The Vikings often slid Robison inside to defensive tackle and brought in Hunter to rush from the edge opposite Griffen. Johnson's past two NFL seasons have been his most productive, with him thriving in a specialty role as the nickel rusher from one of the two defensive tackle spots.
"The inside nickel rusher becomes a really important position, at least for us – as much as the nickel back," Zimmer said during his media session. "It's the kind of position we look for quite a bit."
Zimmer and Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman are also focused on bringing in players who can play well in coverage. Last year, the Vikings selected cornerback Trae Waynes 11th overall. While at Michigan State University, Waynes was part of a Spartans backfield that earned the nickname "No Fly Zone" due to their effectiveness on defense.
NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks emphasized Waynes' coverage skills prior to the 2015 NFL Draft.
"[Waynes] is aggressive and tenacious at the line of scrimmage, yet he also plays with discipline and patience throughout the route," Brooks said. "Waynes consistently maintains ideal leverage on receivers up the field, and he uses his superb body positioning to force quarterbacks to fit the ball into tight windows."
The depth that the Vikings had at cornerback, with Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes, led to Waynes playing much of his rookie season as a reserve and a standout on special teams. He showed glimpses of his cover skills on a handful of defensive snaps throughout the season, recording five passes defensed.
Newman and Rhodes combined for 27 passes defensed in 2015.
The unit made a number of strides last season, but Zimmer said it wasn't enough. He will never stop looking to improve the Vikings defense, and the demand for athletic players who can make big plays and challenge the quarterback is only increasing.
As the Vikings work to continue boosting their roster, Zimmer said the team will continue looking for players who can thwart opponents' pass attacks.
"We're always going to look for pass rushers, we're always looking for guys who can cover," Zimmer told Florio. "Because I think that's the way the league is going now."