EAGAN, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer reached into his bag of tricks to start the playoffs at New Orleans. Expect that to happen again Saturday.
The defensive specialist surprised the Saints in a 26-20 overtime wild-card win last Sunday by moving defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen inside for about a dozen pass rushes against veteran quarterback Drew Brees. Zimmer also utilized safety Andrew Sendejo as a nickel back, a position he played for the first time in New Orleans.
After being roughly a touchdown underdog at New Orleans, the sixth-seeded Vikings (11-6) are in a similar position entering Saturday’s divisional playoff at San Francisco (13-3), the top seed in the NFC. Defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo hinted Wednesday that more surprises could be in store.
“(Zimmer) can improvise,” Odenigbo said. “That’s why he’s one of the best, if not the best. … (The Saints) didn’t know what to expect. We hit them with the element of surprise. I think we have a nice game plan also against the 49ers. …. They’ve got a good offense, but it’s going to be a good chess match.”
Zimmer thrives on chess matches. Defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said he’s not sure what his coach will roll out against the 49ers, but he is excited to see what it will be.
“I don’t know what’s up his sleeve,” Johnson said. “To be honest, Zimmer is a mastermind when it comes to that. We’ll see on Saturday.”
Zimmer was one of the NFL’s top defensive coordinators before getting his first head coaching position with Minnesota in 2014. The Vikings finished in the top four in the NFL in total defense the previous three years before slipping to No. 14 this season, but it looked like the unit of old at New Orleans.
The Vikings held the Saints to 324 yards, nearly 50 less than the 373.9 they averaged during the regular season. They sacked Brees three times and forced him into two turnovers — an interception and fumble.
Now, the Vikings will run into an even more potent offense, led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers were fourth during the regular season in total offense at 381.1 yards per game.
“Each week, we try to look at something different,” Zimmer said. “But it’s playoff time and so you’re always going to try to add a little bit different looks for the other team. Maybe it takes them a little while to catch on to whatever you’re doing.”
The Saints had just 158 yards in the first three quarters. By the time they really started to catch on, they trailed 20-10.
Whatever Zimmer does Saturday, he must try to overcome a shorthanded secondary, like last week. For the second straight game, the Vikings will be without their top two nickel backs, Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes. Alexander will have arthroscopic knee surgery Thursday, and Hughes is on injured reserve.
Many thought safety Jayron Kearse would take over at nickel back against the Saints, but Sendejo got the nod. Kearse sat out practices Tuesday and Wednesday with toe and knee injuries, and his availability for Saturday is uncertain.
“I thought we played pretty well the other day against a pretty good offensive team, so we should be fine,” Zimmer said of the secondary.
Safety Anthony Harris agrees.
“He’s creative,” Harris said of Zimmer. “He’s not afraid to make adjustments, if need be.”
It remains to be seen if the Vikings again move Hunter and Griffen inside at times, leaving Odenigbo and Stephen Weatherly to play defensive end. Odenigbo said that was done primarily to combat Brees.
“Drew Brees sets up so shallow in the pocket and those two (Saints) tackles are legitimate all-pros, so we knew getting to him is nearly impossible as a D-end,” Odenigbo said.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan vows to be ready for any look on the defensive line.
“We’ll see where (Hunter and Griffen) are against us, but regardless of where they are, there’s five guys that can block them, and we’ll see which ones they put in front of them,” Shanahan said. “Those guys are a challenge wherever they’re at.”
Whatever it is, Zimmer will have something in store for the 49ers.
“It’s an ultra chess match the whole game,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “He’s been a successful coach. That’s why he prepares the way he prepares, so he can be ready for these opportunities.”