Whenever the name Mike Zimmer is written since his departure from the Minnesota Vikings after the final game of the 2021 season, it’s not something the former head coach wants to read. Various players in figurative doghouses, feuds with different people, and the insinuation of stubbornness fail to do justice to the defensive mind.
He changed the game of football with his legendary double-A-gap blitz. Two linebackers line up between the two guards and the center. Six defenders match up with, at times, just five offensive linemen who have no clue which one, and how many of the defenders, will hunt the quarterback. The confusion can be used in different ways. That’s the patented Mike Zimmer double A blitz that most teams picked up and put into their repertoire.
Zimmer didn’t just invent a new defensive lineup. He also led dominant defenses in a lot of battles. His teams played hard, smart, and with perfect fundamentals. Few people are a better embodiment of that than Harrison Smith and Eric Kendricks. Their fundamentals, like tackling, their football IQ, and their toughness, are what made Zimmer’s defenses great.
In the last two seasons, the defenses didn’t shine as bright anymore. Injuries and departures combined with declining players and deciphered schemes. All of this resulted in a bad defense. However, right before those two seasons, Zimmer led the team into a clash that will forever be his magnum opus.
Wild Card Round 2019
The Vikings already secured a playoff spot before they had to play against Khalil Mack and his Bears in Week 17. The starters got a well-deserved rest and backups a chance. Zimmer didn’t know who the playoff opponent would be.
Two years after the ‘Minneapolis Miracle,’ Zimmer’s Vikings would once again face the New Orleans Saints led by head coach and enemy number one for Vikings fans, Sean Payton. The Saints were the number three seed but possibly the best team in the league. A 13-3 record and losing a double tiebreaker to the 49ers and Packers had them facing the Vikings. No bye week but an easy opponent and a chance for revenge for the 2017 heartbreak. At least that was the narrative surrounding the game.
Payton’s team was the heavy favorite. Vegas spotted the Vikings 7.5 points at kickoff. All week there wasn’t a lot of talk in national media about the matchup because no one gave the Vikings a chance. The Saints playoffs were supposed to start one week later against a real opponent. Mike Zimmer had an interesting press conference on the Monday before the game.
I don’t think anybody thinks we can win this game. We’re eight-point underdogs, we’re going on the road, they just had an NFL video of all the playoff teams except us. We’ll just go from there.
The Vikings had a special vibe going on that week before the game. They were in a great mood. Anyone talked about beating the Saints with an ‘us against the world’ mindset.
“All I care about is that 53 guys believe.”
– Mike Zimmer about the upcoming playoff game in 2019
The whole organization was confident and not scared before the game.
Fox’s announcer Joe Buck said during the game that Zimmer said, “We’re going down to New Orleans, and we’re gonna win.”
Why Was It Zimmer’s Magnum Opus?
As massive underdogs on the road against a superior team, that doesn’t sound like a winnable matchup. Leading up to the game, the Vikings ruled out slot cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes early. Terrible circumstances if the opponent has the best receiver in the league at that time, Michael Thomas. He often lined up in the slot, and neither Trae Waynes nor Xavier Rhodes can play that position.
Zimmer had a trick up his sleeves. His solution for the problem was Andrew Sendejo. The safety left after the 2018 season but was waived by the Eagles in November and immediately claimed by the Vikings. A safety against offensive mastermind Sean Payton drawing up plays for Hall of Famer Drew Brees and his star wideout Michael Thomas was a recipe for disaster.
The day of the game arrived, and it started with a disaster for the Vikings. On the first drive, Thielen fumbled the ball after a catch, and the return brought the Saints into field goal range. The play should not have counted, as Pat Elflein clearly committed a false start. Suddenly, the nightmare of a blowout loss was very possible.
Michael Thomas caught his first target against Andrew Sendejo in the slot. The drive ends on a Saints field goal after Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen met at the quarterback and sacked Brees. Prior to the play, the Saints just needed four more yards for a touchdown.
The following Vikings drive ended like the first Saints drive. Dan Bailey tied the game. The offense was rolling until Stefanski, the offensive coordinator, called a trick play where Diggs was supposed to throw. All routes, however, were perfectly covered by the Saints, so Diggs was sacked. The Vikings eventually had to settle for three points.
On the subsequent Saints drive, Zimmer pulled out his next trick, and it was a genius move. It was 3rd and 7, and Zimmer moved his star edge rushers, Griffen and Hunter, to the inside and lined them up against the Saints guards, who were clearly inferior to the offensive tackles. Griffen got to Brees after a nasty spin move took Andrus Peat out of the equation and forced an incompletion that ended the drive.
A questionable holding call against Adam Thielen cost the Vikings a first down and a 22-yard run. After a third-down sack, the Vikings had to punt. The purple defense responded and forced a punt as well. The game was a back and forth, and the Vikings’ defensive line completely dominated Brees’ protection. Once again, the two edge rushers lined up inside and forced a quick throw away on a third down.
The following Vikings offensive drive ended in a three and out. Mike Perreira, the Fox rules expert, saw a defensive holding on third down, which wasn’t called. Now, Taysom Hill, the Saints gadget player, had his big performance. First, he ran for 11 yards, and then he found Deonte Harris deep for 50 yards. Harris’ double move had Rhodes completely lost. Kamara recorded the remaining yards on the next play for a score.
The Vikings’ offense had to wake up at this point, as they were down seven points, and they did deliver to some extent. Multiple big third-down conversations and big plays from Dalvin Cook led to a 1st and Goal, but the Saints’ goal line stand brought Dan Bailey back out for a field goal. The Saints were up four points with just under three minutes to go in the first half. The Saints also got the ball to open in the third quarter, so the defense had a big drive coming up.
Sendejo had an important pass breakup on what could’ve been a 30-yard pass. Bree threw the third down pass deep into double coverage, and safety Anthony Harris picked him off. Kirk Cousins comes back out, and the drive starts at the Saints’ 45. The defense gave the team a great opportunity at the end of the first half. Cousins matched the defensive performance with two perfect throws to Adam Thielen to set up a first down at the Saints’ five-yard line, from where Cook found the endzone for a score for a three-point lead.
With just over 20 seconds left, the Vikings have the unexpected lead, but after a big kickoff return from Harris, the Saints start once again in Vikings territory at the 45-yard line and 12 seconds to go. A Thomas reception sets up a 43-yard field goal attempt, but Lutz missed it. The Saints ended the half in a sloppy way and therefore are down three points at halftime. Payton´s team did not allow that many rushing yards in any half in over two years. Subsequently, the Vikings dominated the time of possession and had the ball for over 18 minutes.
At halftime, Fox sideline reporter Chris Myers spoke with Mike Zimmer, “No one gave us a chance to win this game. Right now we’re winning.”
He also liked the double coverage against Michael Thomas without using a cornerback. Zimmer’s tricks worked wonderfully. On the first drive of the second half, the Saints moved the ball efficiently until Kendricks blew up a Kamara run. He needed one yard on third down but lost six instead. The Vikings, however, answered with a punt after a Brian O’Neill holding call on a big first down run from Dalvin Cook.
Brees was back on the field and immediately was met by Everson Griffen once again. He dominated the pulling guard Larry Warford and recorded another sack. Rhodes broke up the third down throw to Michael Thomas and forced another punt. In the next Vikings drive, Kirk Cousins had another big third-down situation. The Vikings were almost at midfield. Cam Jordan and five other Saints defenders executed a blitz, and they got to the quarterback and hit him. Cousins took the hit, which is one of his superpowers, and threw a dime to Thielen for a 34-yard gain.
After another perfect pass from Cousins scrambling left to Diggs, Cook finished the drive with his second score. The Vikings led by ten points three minutes away from the fourth quarter. Zimmer’s excellent defense forced another three-and-out. Sean Payton called a fake punt, and that didn’t work either because of a penalty.
The Vikings’ drive started at their own 39-yard line. However, that drive was a disaster. A Mattison run lost yardage, a false start, an almost intercepted screen pass after a drop, and a draw on third down led to another Vikings punt up ten at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Brees and his Saints have to score now to keep the game in reach. And they did just that. The offense was marching down the field in under five minutes and scored on a Brees pass to his backup quarterback and gadget player, Taysom Hill. Another Vikings punt later, the Saints were suddenly in the driver’s seat. They were still down three points, but with just seven minutes on the clock, they could end the game.
Game in Brees´ Hands
“The game lies in the hands of Drew Brees. And that offense coming in, was red-hot [recently].”
– Joe Buck
The Vikings could absolutely not allow a touchdown — a field goal for overtime and a stop to move on to the divisional round. Taysom Hill running over Anthony Harris for 28 yards didn’t help the purple team. The Saints were in field goal range.
The next play was crucial in the game. Danielle Hunter hit star tackle Ramczyk with a stutter step and had a straight line to Brees. The quarterback tried to escape the sack but couldn’t and, in addition, lost the football. Holmes recovered the ball, and the Vikings were one step closer to winning the game with just four minutes to go.
A few plays later, Dalvin Cook fumbled the ball, which was returned for a touchdown. After review, it was determined that his knee was down. However, for a second, the whole Vikings season ended on that play. After three consecutive negative plays, the Vikings had to punt on 4th&23 with 2:15 left on the clock.
Brees is one of the all-time greats in terms of the two-minute drill. He needed three points for overtime and a touchdown to win it. After struggling all game, the future Hall of Famer turned back the clock, looked like prime Drew Brees and brought his team in field goal range. Kicker Will Lutz hit the 49-yard game-tying field goal.
The two rivals went into overtime. Everson Griffen, who had a phenomenal game, made another great play. He called heads before the coin toss. He was correct, and the Vikings got the ball first. Zimmer’s unit held the Saints’ explosive offense to 20 points, 324 total yards, and just 27 minutes in the category of time of possession. They also forced two turnovers.
Cousins´ Big Moment
All the pressure was on the quarterback, Cousins now. The big investment had the most significant moment of his career. An overtime playoff game on the road as a heavy underdog. He had to deliver. Two plays to Cook and a huge third down conversion to Diggs set up a new set of downs at the own 44-yard line. Cook rushed for another first down. The ball was spotted at the Saints’ 45. Stefanski called a play-action pass on first down. Cousins didn’t hesitate and threw a dime to Thielen, who made a fabulous catch at the two-yard line.
“This is the best throw of his career right here. With what’s on the line and for him to be able to drop that right out of the sky. Thielen gets a couple steps and he delivers it on the money. That’s the throw that could very well erase all the conversation about whether or not Kirk Cousins can show up big in the big games.”
– Troy Aikman about the Kirk Cousins throw
The Vikings still needed two more yards to win the game. The first down run was stuffed. The second down run was stopped at the five-yard line. A disastrous play, as a field goal would give the Saints another chance. The purple team needed that touchdown.
Third down. The Vikings lined up their tight end on the left side. Somehow, the Saints left Kyle Rudolph one-on-one. That’s a 6’6″ giant. Cousins saw it, threw it up there, and the rest is history. No chance to defend that play.
“Absolute stunned silence here in New Orleans.”
– Joe Buck
Nobody gave the Vikings a chance. Zimmer’s defensive wizardry shocked the Saints. Just like Cousins’ killer mentality and Cook’s explosiveness.
The Vikings were without a chance in the following week against the 49ers. But to beat a superior team by covering the best receiver in the league with a safety and lining up defensive ends as defensive tackles will forever be part of Zimmer’s legacy.
Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt