EAGAN, Minn. — Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith found themselves in a rare place last week: on the field, in full underwear, lining up against an opponent in a physical and challenging joint practice series with the San Francisco 49ers. . They were all over the field, disrupting the 49ers’ offense in every way the Minnesota Vikings envisioned when they paired them at outside linebacker in their new 3-4 scheme.
His heavy dose of playing time in two practices with the 49ers was part of an atypical summer workload, one that the Vikings’ medical staff carefully designed and choreographed to give them ample time to learn the defense and minimize the chance of injury. the kind of injuries that have slowed down the careers of both.
They almost certainly won’t play in any preseason games, and their practice reps have been limited in a camp that has skewed light for all players, making last week’s job against the 49ers possibly the most important summer.
Defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who began his NFL career 32 years ago when hard hitting and conditioning were the norm in camp, said the Vikings’ entire team approach this summer has been “as modern as possible.” “. He said there has been enough time for Hunter and Smith to get comfortable with the scheme and insisted the team “gives us the best chance” of having both players healthy during the regular season.
You won’t find any arguments from the players. Hunter missed the entire 2020 season due to a neck injury, then played just seven games and a total of 367 snaps last season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Meanwhile, Smith played just 17 regular-season snaps last season due to a back injury that required surgery.
Shortly after the Vikings hired general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell, they overhauled the team’s medical staff and added former Los Angeles Rams athletic trainer Tyler Williams as executive director of health and performance for the Vikings. players. O’Connell soon signaled a new approach to practices, limiting significant portions of OTAs and minicamps to jogging pace. He often refers to sports science when discussing practice plans and schedules, mixing specific opportunities for contact with full protectors with longer periods of less intense practice.
On Monday, for example, Hunter and Smith jogged to the sideline after warmups to perform a custom series of footwork drills for 10 minutes while the rest of their teammates hit a blocking sled. The same routine was followed by other defensive veterans, including cornerback Patrick Peterson, safety Harrison Smith and inside linebackers Eric Kendricks and Jordan Hicks.
“You can do that when you have those older guys, going into their seventh and eighth years,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said. “They have to work hard enough to get the stress into their lungs, but there’s also respect that they should get and that they earned.”
Injuries during training camp, especially the soft-tissue variety, were so minimal that the team made only one roster change between the start of camp and the mandatory cut to 85 on Aug. 16.
“[O’Connell] he definitely knows when to turn it on,” Hunter said. “He gives us maybe a couple of days to go as hard as we can, and he takes care of us. But at the same time, we still have to do some work. They have a good balance between when to turn it on and when to turn it off.”
The plan for individual days may vary, but generally speaking, Hunter and Smith alternate between specialized work and practice reps. The goal, of course, is to have Hunter and Smith fully available for the team’s Week 1 opener against the visiting Green Bay Packers, a game that could have a big impact on the NFC North race.
Close observers of training camp practices have seen the basis of what the Vikings have planned for the pair, who are coached by the same assistant, Mike Smith, who guided Za’Darius Smith to two Pro Bowls with the Packers. .
In two seasons with Mike Smith, Za’Darius Smith lined up at inside running back on 385 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information positional data. Nearly half of his 26 sacks during that stretch (12.5) came on those inside runs, making it easy to see why he was doing the same thing against the 49ers.
“I’m going to put my best into my worst,” Mike Smith said. “That’s what I ask outside linebackers to adjust to. They realize these guards aren’t as athletic as the tackles they were facing. And guess what? You’re closer to the quarterback that ‘Z’ accepted that in Green Bay, and when you have a guy like that, it helps everyone. [positional group] to accept. And he also makes me a better coach.”
Hunter said he hopes to move up and down the line as well, and has picked up the minds of Mike and Za’Darius Smith as suggestions. And if he was concerned that a highly effective 4-3 pass-rusher might fail in a 3-4 scheme, Mike Smith offered some reminders.
First, most NFL teams are on their base defense in less than 40% of the snaps. When a 3-4 moves into five or dime sets, the defensive line morphs into something closer to a 4-3.
“Everybody’s got a 4-3 when you get into your nickel stuff,” Smith said.
Second, the two-point positions of linebackers in a 3-4 make it easier to move them around the formation, as Za’Darius Smith has done regularly. And the Vikings are the first to point out how wasteful it would be to use Hunter or Smith on more than a minimum number of pass throws. Mike Smith predicted that Hunter will drop “a little more” than he did in typical 4-3 zone bombing schemes.
“It’s not like he’s going to be one of our top droppers,” Smith said.
It all makes the Vikings think big about their pass rush this season. Asked recently to assess the transition from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 linebacker, Hunter said, “I feel like it’s about the same thing. Being able to drop a little bit, rush the passer, stop the run, kind of like Lawrence Taylor Type Stuff.”
Taylor, of course, was arguably the best defensive player in NFL history.
Not to be undone, Za’Darius Smith commissioned T-shirts with “Meet me at the quarterback” printed on them, referencing the mantra from the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters storyline. It all depends on Smith and Hunter getting there and finishing the season. So far so good.