The Vikings Defense Under Ed Donatell

April 17, 2022

The Vikings defense under Ed Donatell will be a drastic change. Sweeping changes have been made to the Vikings coaching staff in the wake of Mike Zimmer’s firing. Kevin O’Connell, an offensive-minded first-year head coach has taken the reigns. He contributed to building out a proven staff around him. Wes Phillips was brought in as Offensive Coordinator (though Kevin O’Connell has said he will be calling plays). Newcomer Ed Donatell will usurp the defensive play-calling responsibility previously held by Mike Zimmer.

Mike Pettine was Defensive Coordinator in Green Bay from 2018-to 2020. He was a Defensive Assistant in Chicago this past season, and will also contribute to the defensive philosophy. Although Zimmer’s defenses were subpar the past few seasons he is often lauded for his scheme. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from Ed Donatell’s group.

Vikings Defense Under Ed Donatell

Ed Donatell; Veteran Student

Something that Ed Donatell stressed in his introductory interview was learning and adapting to the evolution of football. Like Zimmer, Donatell is a defensive backs guy, holding the Defensive Backs/Secondary Coach title for most of his career. After getting his NFL start with the Jets in 1990, Donatell coached the 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl Champion Broncos. He spent four seasons in Green Bay from 2000-to 2003 and coached in a third Super Bowl on the 49ers staff in 2012. More applicably, Ed got his first Defensive Coordinator gig in Denver in 2019 under Vic Fangio.

Fangio was the Defensive Coordinator on the same staff as Donatell from 2011 to 2018 with San Francisco (‘11-‘14) and Chicago (‘15-‘18). Under Fangio’s tutelage, Donatell was a contributor to some of the league’s best defenses. Over his first three seasons in San Francisco, the team won 36 games allowing 14.3, 17.1, and 17.0 points over three seasons. More recently, most of us can remember the machine that was the 2018 Chicago Bears defense. These examples are what happens when defensive personnel aligns with what a Fangio/now Donatell scheme wants to do.

Going from 4-3 to 3-4

The Vikings will be going from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4. What we can expect will be much more “multiple” with plenty of even fronts mixed in. In today’s NFL, defenses spend about 75%-80% of snaps in sub-packages. That means five or more defensive backs and fewer players in the tackle box. In the nickel (five defensive backs) we could see multiple combinations Za’Darius Smith, Danielle Hunter, Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Hicks, and Eric Kendricks.

The Broncos under Donatell employed 4-2, 3-3, and 5-1 out of this personnel grouping. The Vikings will be able to do the same with the players on the roster even pre-draft. Mike Pettine’s (and additionally Mike Smith, Linebackers Coach) existing connection with Za’Darius Smith will prove valuable right away. On the edge with likes to rush from a two-point stance. This makes it easier for him to move around pre-snap, essentially hunting a one-on-one block. He abused Guards and Centers when he was able to get pass-rushing matchups on the interior.

When It’s Really Good

When Donatell’s defenses are at their best they are able to rely heavily on their cornerbacks to hold up in man coverage. This frees up the safeties to read the quarterback and make plays. Running Cover 1 Robber meaning one deep safety with man coverage on the 5 eligible receivers. A “robber”, usually the other safety but sometimes a linebacker, who sinks to the middle of the field underneath the deep safety to take away in-breaking routes. These plays will often be disguised as a plain Cover 2 or Cover 4 shell with both safeties deep until one of them rolls down to the robber spot at the snap.

To be consistently effective running these concepts the Vikings will need at least one more solid man-coverage corner. Cameron Dantzler does well in man and although he lacks great recovery speed, most of his errors are mental. Patrick Peterson is in great shape and he is more comfortable in zone. A player like Andrew Booth Jr. from Clemson would be a great value selection as a press-man corner.

Zone Tendencies

If the coaching staff can’t rely on the corners they have on the roster, we may see more zone. When going to zone coverage, Donatell likes to use Cover 6. One quarter (Cover 4) look to one half of the field with two deep players and a Cover 2 look to the other side with that deep player in a deep half zone. The disguise of these types of plays pre-snap will come predominantly from the safeties. One safety will often roll down into the box or the overhang position. We’ll see the deceptive skills of Harrison Smith maximized in these instances. Predicated on preventing explosive plays downfield, the defensive scheme will also call for Cover 6 or 7 on long-distance downs.

All in all, Ed Donatell is an experienced, adept defensive coach about whom we should all be excited. The scheme he will implement is one that has taken the league by storm over the past 4-5 years. The Vikings defense under Ed Donatell will not find themselves too far behind the curve.