The arrival of Ed Donatell in Minnesota is a welcome sight for Minnesota Vikings fans. As the new defensive coordinator for the team, he hopes to return the Purple defense to its once vaulted status as one of the best defenses in the league. Former coach Mike Zimmer had the defense hitting on all cylinders from 2016-2019 when they were one of the most feared defenses in the league.
But with injuries, departures, and Zimmer’s own implosion, the defense ranked a woeful 24th in the NFL last year. A change was obviously necessary, and Donatell will bring his aggressive, deceptive brand of defense to the Vikings. He also will at times employ a 3-4 defensive scheme that he used with Denver Broncos. This will be a completely new wrinkle for a Minnesota defense.
How will Ed Donatell Deploy the 3-4 Defense in Minnesota?
Donatell’s Denver days give us clues about how much he will use the formation and how it will be deployed in Minnesota. Most people assume that the 3-4 defense is only used on first down and probable running situations. But with its use as a part of zone defense packages, it creates more flexibility for the four linebackers to assist on both passing and running plays. This also allows defenses to disguise stunts and blitzes more creatively.
How does the Vikings’ personnel fit this new formation? On the defensive line, it starts with the nose tackle and for that, the Vikings acquired Harrison Phillips to be their ace run-stopper. At the defensive end positions, the most likely starters are veterans Dalvin Tomlinson and Armon Watts. These three are all strong run defenders and Watts adds some juice as a pass rusher.
Vikings are Strong at Inside Linebacker
At the inside linebacker positions, Minnesota will turn to the stalwart Eric Kendricks and newly acquired Jordan Hicks. They both move laterally very well on outside running plays and they are strong enough to help shut down the opposition’s inside running game. They also are very capable pass defenders.
At the outside linebacker positions, Ed Donatell will deploy two veterans who have missed significant playing time over the past two seasons. The first is All-Pro Danielle Hunter, who has seen his past two seasons almost completely wiped out by injuries. On the other side will be former Packer Pro-Bowler, Za’Darius Smith. He missed almost the entire season last year with a back injury.
Nickel and Dime Packages
When it is time to substitute a defensive back in the nickel package, another ex-Packer Chandon Sullivan will enter the game at slot cornerback. With this rotation, the two outside linebackers convert to standard 4-3 formation defensive ends. In this situation, either Phillips or Tomlinson heads to the bench.
The Vikings will at times also replace one of the tackles in this formation with a traditional defensive end to increase the pressure on the quarterback. The most likely candidates for that job are D.J. Wonnum, Patrick Jones II, and rookie Esezi Otomewo. Hicks will likely be the player who leaves the field when a dime package is introduced. Dime-back candidates include rookie Andrew Booth Jr. and second-year player Camryn Bynum.
Ed Donatell Has Had Success with Different Defensive Schemes
So, the new 3-4 defense can be deployed in various situations and affords the defense flexibility in how to deploy it. And while Ed Donatell ran the 3-4 defense in Denver, he deployed a 4-3 defense as the defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers for four seasons. He also utilized the 4-3 in his stint as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator for three seasons.
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins said that Donatell’s defensive schemes have confused the Vikings’ offense at times during OTA’s and minicamp. He described the situation as “muddy” because you never know what to expect. Here’s hoping that the other NFL offenses feel the same way when the regular season starts.