MINNEAPOLIS — “He was a nervous wreck before this game,” Ann Zimmer declared, shortly after I’d entered the head coach’s private locker room at US Bank Stadium, and before she and I had been properly introduced. “It’s true. He was really worried. He was a mess.”
Her son, Mike, the Minnesota Vikings‘ surly, 62-year-old coach, shook his head and frowned.
“That’s every week,” Zimmer insisted, dismissing the storyline like one of his menacing defensive linemen shedding a block in the trenches. “I’m always a nervous wreck.”
I didn’t doubt that Zimmer had come into Sunday’s season opener against the San Francisco 49ers feeling too stressed to be blessed; the man, by his own admission, experiences on-the-verge-of-vomit nausea before each game he coaches. However, I figured that in the wake of a 24-16 victory in which the Vikings‘ defense forced four turnovers and besmirched the growing legend of Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, Zimmer would at least cop to feeling some subtle satisfaction for a gameplan well executed.
Zimmer, however, wasn’t having it. As he sat in the small room with his mom and two of his children — son Adam, the Vikes’ linebackers coach, and daughter Corri — he swore that Sunday’s Battle of the Brains between himself and Niners coach Kyle Shanahan had been a draw, at best.
“They had us off balance,” Zimmer said. “I had to make adjustments on the fly, changes to fronts and coverages; we had some injuries, and I had to move some guys around. Honestly, I thought they did a really nice job. (Garoppolo) made some really good throws. Shanahan made some nice calls. There was a lot of misdirection, getting the quarterback out of the pocket quick, getting out on the run and making plays. We’d try to cover it, and the next thing you know, a guy’s running by us. It took us a little while to adjust, and then we had to readjust.”
Perhaps Zimmer, one of the sport’s premier defensive strategists, was merely being modest. Possibly, he still has post-traumatic stress from the butt-whipping that ended the Vikings‘ season last January, when, in the wake of the Minnesota Miracle, they got eviscerated by Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles in a 38-7 NFC Championship Game blowout.
Most likely, Zimmer was keeping it real: Shanahan, indeed, is one of the NFL’s most creative play-callers, and that five-game winning streak that Garoppolo triggered after taking over as the 49ers‘ starter late last season was no fluke. Last Christmas Eve, Garoppolo shredded the Jacksonville Jaguars‘ daunting defense with such precision that Niners fans — some of whom were already calling him “Jimmy Jesus” — began chanting “MVP” late in a 44-33 victory.
Eight-plus months later, Garoppolo finally experienced the sting of his first NFL defeat as a starter, dropping his career record to 7-1. He completed just 15 of 33 passes for 261 yards and a touchdown, threw three interceptions (including a pick-six) and was sacked three times. I’m not a huge fan of the single-game passer rating — full disclosure, I detest it — but if we must: Going into this game, Garoppolo’s worst effort in that regard was an 82.4; Sunday’s single-game rating was 45.1.
The Vikings clamped down on many of the intermediate passes on which Garoppolo had been so precise in previous efforts, betting that he wouldn’t punish them on deep balls when the opportunities arose. They changed up their coverages and fronts and threw as many looks as they could at the fifth-year passer, who the Niners acquired last October in a trade with the Patriots — and locked down with a five-year, $137.5-million contract in February.
“Zim’s been in this league a long time,” said veteran safety George Iloka, who signed with the Vikings last August after being released by the Cincinnati Bengals, where Zimmer worked as the defensive coordinator from 2008-13. “Mark my words — whatever team we’re playing, he’s always gonna try to make them not do what they’re best at, if that makes sense. If they beat you in a way you’re not used to, you tip your hat to them. But he’s gonna mix it up and give you different looks, and even veteran quarterbacks sometimes struggle with that.”
And to be fair: Garoppolo, who spent four seasons as Tom Brady‘s backup in New England, was bound to struggle one of these Sundays. In losing his first start since Dec. 13, 2013, when his Eastern Illinois Panthers were taken down by Towson State, Garoppolo was frequently harassed by Minnesota’s defensive linemen, one of whom claimed psychological victory after the game.
“As the game goes on, you have got to bring the pressure on him,” defensive end Danielle Hunter told reporters after the game. “You see that he’s starting to get scared.”
Zimmer, however, insisted he was the rattled one. The bootlegs, misdirection calls and backside passes that Shanahan relied upon to carve up the Jags last December were very much a part of the Niners’ attack, and as good as the Vikings are on the back end, defending those plays was not an easy task.
“I started doing some things to try to help them, keeping the ends vertically up the field,” Zimmer said. “Then they ran on us, and we had to adjust again. It was a good cat-and-mouse game.”
And as Garoppolo found out, playing against the Vikings — a team of human mousetraps — leaves you very, very little margin for error.
It didn’t help Garoppolo’s cause that his newly minted Minnesota counterpart, Kirk Cousins, had a smooth, efficient and impressive debut (20 of 36, 244 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions). After six years in Washington, Cousins signed a three-year, $84-million fully guaranteed deal with the Vikings last March because he felt they gave him the best chance to win. He had his share of money moments on Sunday, displaying exquisite touch on a pair of scoring passes, a 22-yarder to wideout Stefon Diggs that gave Minnesota a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter and an 11-yarder to tight end Kyle Rudolph that made it 24-6 with 4:22 left in the third.
“That,” Rudolph said, “is why we pay him the big bucks.”
That said, a whole slew of Vikings defenders earned their paychecks on Sunday, led by free safety Harrison Smith, who recovered Niners halfback Alfred Morris‘ fumble near the Minnesota goal line (forced by nose tackle Linval Joseph) with 2:18 left in the first half, had a sack and a quarterback hurry, and sealed the deal with an interception in San Francisco territory 95 seconds before game’s end.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes also picked off a Garoppolo pass, as did Mike Hughes, a 2018 first-round draft pick from Central Florida. In his first NFL game, Hughes had a welcome-to-the-NFL moment to remember, intercepting a ball in the flat and racing 28 yards for a touchdown with 10:41 left in the third quarter.
In fairness, it wasn’t all Garoppolo’s fault. The pick-six was clearly the product of a miscommunication, with wideout Kendrick Bourne later taking the blame for having run the wrong route. And on the play before the pick-six, which put Minnesota up 17-3, Garoppolo had lofted a glorious deep ball for tight end George Kittle, who was running free down the left side of the field but dropped the ball, in stride, at the Vikings‘ 45, squelching an opportunity that could well have gone for a touchdown.
Given all the miscues, against a team as good as the Vikings, it would have been understandable had the Niners gotten blown out. Yet San Francisco fought its way back into the game, with Garoppolo squirming out of a potential sack and connecting with wideout Dante Pettis on a 22-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in the third quarter (“I thought we had him sacked; a really, really impressive play,” Zimmer said) to cut the lead to 24-13, then making it a one-possession game on Robbie Gould‘s 22-yard field goal with 8:09 remaining in the fourth.
To Zimmer, it was all very… well — as his mother would attest — stressful. He lost one of his standout corners, Trae Waynes, to a knee injury early in the second half, forcing him to throw some younger defensive backs (including Hughes) into positions he hadn’t anticipated. That said, the Niners lost their primary deep threat, speedy wideout Marquise Goodwin, to a quad strain early in the second quarter and saw two right guards (Mike Person and Joshua Garnett) go down with foot injuries, forcing rookie right tackle Mike McGlinchey to shift over and spend most of the second half at a position he said he’d never played at any level.
And Shanahan was still reeling from the torn ACL suffered eight days earlier in practice by former Vikings halfback Jerick McKinnon, who the Niners had signed in March to a four-year, $30-million deal because they envisioned him as a vehicle for creating innumerable matchup problems for opposing defenses.
If it makes Shanahan feel any better, count Zimmer among those who believes in the preseason hype surrounding Garoppolo and the Niners, Sunday’s outcome notwithstanding.
“I’m not in the prediction business,” Zimmer said, “but I think they’re gonna be a good football team — I really do. They’re physical up front on defense. They have some really good misdirection runs and passes. I think (Garoppolo) throws a nice ball. They have a lot going for them.”
For all their talent, the Vikings regard Zimmer, now in his fifth year as a head coach after a long career as an accomplished but oft-overlooked assistant, as a cherished asset.
“That’s separated us from a lot of teams in the last four-plus years,” Rudolph said. “He’s really good at this. Look at the fourth-and-1.”
The play in question: With 2:54 remaining and an eight-point lead, the Vikings indeed had a fourth-and-1 at their own 41, and Zimmer sent his offense onto the field. Cousins then implemented the obligatory hard-count in an attempt to provoke a Niners defender into an offsides penalty — and it worked, with defensive end Solomon Thomas getting flagged for a neutral-zone infraction, allowing Minnesota to extend the drive and drain more time off the clock.
Said Rudolph: “Things like that, late in the game, that’s what we’re built for. We want to keep the game close and play situational football. And when we get into situations like that, we’re always prepared.”
Of course, it’s also possible that Zimmer was actually prepared to go for it on the play in question. Had Thomas not jumped, would Cousins have taken a snap and run a play?
“Maybe,” Zimmer said, busting into what likely was his first smile of a long, nerve-wracking and ultimately rewarding first Sunday of the 2018 season. A few feet away, Ann Zimmer acknowledged her son’s uncharacteristic change of expression, nodding her apparent approval.
Then her son smiled even more broadly.
“I’ll never tell,” he said.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.