Danielle Hunter fell into coverage for a play. The next day, the Vikings’ Pro Bowl passing thrower challenged left tackle Christian Darrisaw in pursuit of Kirk Cousins. Later in practice at the TCO Performance Center, Hunter teamed up with rusher Za’Darius Smith in a different look – both silhouetted on the left side of the offensive line.
The Vikings defense is undergoing a transformation at team events held in Eagan this spring. After eight years under former head coach Mike Zimmer, the remaining veteran defenders are learning new techniques, coverage and positions in the 3-4 defensive front installed by coordinator Ed Donatell.
Some say there is less rigidity in their roles.
“I feel a little freer,” Hunter said.
He adapts his position and to a new meeting room. The Vikings edge rushers are now classified as standing outside linebackers, a change from Hunter’s first seven seasons as a 4-3 hand-in-the-turf defensive end. Outside linebackers have their own meeting room with position coach Mike Smith, separate from an inside D-line with starters Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips and Armon Watts.
The role isn’t entirely new to Hunter, who played the role of standing rusher when Zimmer adjusted his defensive fronts in recent seasons. Hunter also entered the league more effectively when he saw over the line, so coaches let him do that early in his career. But he was never a full-time outside linebacker needed in a 3-4 front.
“I used to get up when I got here,” Hunter said. “So I know how to do that. Basically, I just integrate my point angles and my eyes and stuff.”
Donatell, 65, is overseeing that overhaul and, along with former Broncos head coach Vic Fangio, has fused a defensive scheme that has spawned lookalikes from Brandon Staley’s Chargers to Joe Barry’s Packers. The rarely blitzing, front-morphing defense evolved over a decade and three different NFL teams with Donatell and Fangio coaching the 49ers, Bears and Broncos.
“It’s really a compliment,” Donatell said. “Vic and I got together 12 years ago. We merged our systems. My part was more the cover part. He brought the front stuff and it sort of evolved. To see the Brandon Staleys come out, Joe Barry is part of that. Just parts but it’s a trend you see there. It’s a compliment to the teaching we’ve given and the success of the players who have played for us.
Donatell will be a full-time NFL defensive game caller for the first time since the early 2000s with the Packers and Falcons. He said the call plays, which Fangio mostly did during their stops together, will be “like riding a bike.”
The new coaches also have an idea of what defenders can do. Donatell said they would reserve judgment until the pads are allowed in training camp, when their revamped secondary — complete with first-round safety Lewis Cine and second-round corner Andrew Booth Jr. — could to take shape. So far, rookies have been barred from first-team work in OTA practices open to journalists.
Donatell, a former secondary coach under Fangio, is known for his big-area coverage, allowing defenders to keep an eye on the quarterback to target takeaways. Interchangeable safeties help conceal covers.
“Every time you put up a defense it’s different,” Donatell said. “Where do you find such an experienced linebacker as [Eric] Kendricks and his movement and balance? He has a natural sense of time, distance and space – where do you find that? Where do you find a Harrison Smith, this experience? Danielle? All kinds of parts. What’s fun is that it’s different every time.”
Za’Darius Smith, the former Packers star who signed in free agency, is a veteran trained in the new defense. The chance to reunite with former Packers assistants Mike Pettine, Vikings assistant head coach, and Mike Smith, linebackers coach, lured him across the border.
“I’m here with my coaches, so I know everything,” Smith said. “Just being able to cut down on coverage and move up front.”
Most defenders adapt. Kendricks spent seven years leading center linebacker in Zimmer’s 4-3 defense, and now he’s paired with another inside linebacker in Jordan Hicks, the former Cardinals starter who signed in free agency.
Kendricks said his responsibilities in this playbook are more flexible.
“It’s sometimes a little more ambiguous,” he said. “It allows me to make decisions on the fly, to make plays, to really race. I like that.”
Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said he felt like he was getting back to his roots, where he played in 3-4 – or “odd” – fronts at the University of Alabama and with the Giants. The overhaul has him feeling optimistic after joining the Vikings’ 30th-ranked defense last year.
“Having Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith on the outside, and having three big guys in the middle who can also come on the outside and change the patterns on every level, you don’t know where we’re going to be,” said said Tomlinson. “It will help us a lot.”
“The sky is the limit with all the pieces we have,” he added.