‘More free’: Vikings defenders adjusting to 3-4 schemes

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Danielle Hunter dropped into coverage one play. The next, the Vikings' Pro Bowl pass rusher challenged left tackle Christian Darrisaw in pursuit of Kirk Cousins. Later in the practice at TCO Performance Center, Hunter paired with edge rusher Za'Darius Smith in a different look — both looming over the left side of the offensive line.

The Vikings defense is under transformation during organized team activities in Eagan this spring. After eight years under former head coach Mike Zimmer's scheme, the remaining veteran defenders are learning new techniques, coverages and positions in the 3-4 defensive front being installed by coordinator Ed Donatell.

Some say there's less rigidity in their roles.

"I feel a little bit more free," Hunter said.

He is adjusting his position and to a new meeting room. Vikings edge rushers are now classified as stand-up outside linebackers, a change from Hunter's first seven seasons as a hand-in-the-turf 4-3 defensive end. The outside linebackers have their own meeting room with position coach Mike Smith, separate from an interior D-line with starters Dalvin Tomlinson, Harrison Phillips and Armon Watts.

The role isn't entirely new to Hunter, who dabbled as a stand-up edge rusher when Zimmer adjusted his defensive fronts in recent seasons. Hunter also entered the league more effective when seeing over the line, so coaches let him do it early in his career. But he has never been a full-time rush-and-cover outside linebacker required in a 3-4 front.

"I used to stand up when I first got here," Hunter said. "So, I know how to do that. Basically, just integrating my rush angles and my eyes and all that stuff."

Overseeing this overhaul is the 65-year-old Donatell, who with former Broncos head coach Vic Fangio melded a defensive scheme that has spawned lookalikes from Brandon Staley's Chargers to Joe Barry's Packers. The seldom-blitzing, front-morphing defense has evolved over a decade and three different NFL teams with Donatell and Fangio coaching the 49ers, Bears and Broncos.

"It's really a compliment," Donatell said. "Vic and I came together 12 years ago. We melded our systems. My part was more the coverage part. He brought the front stuff and it kind of evolved. To see the Brandon Staleys go out, Joe Barry's part of that. Just parts of it, but it is a trend you're seeing out there. It's a compliment to the teaching we've done and the success of the players that have played for us."

Donatell will be a full-time NFL defensive play caller for the first time since the early-to-mid 2000s with the Packers and Falcons. He said calling plays, which Fangio primarily did during their stops together, will be "like riding a bicycle."

New coaches are also getting a feel for what defenders can do. Donatell said they'll reserve judgments until pads are allowed in training camp, when their retooled secondary — featuring first-round safety Lewis Cine and second-round corner Andrew Booth Jr. — could take shape. So far, rookies have been held out of first-team work in OTA practices open to reporters.

Donatell, a former secondary coach under Fangio, has been known for heavy zone coverage, allowing defenders to keep eyes on the quarterback to target takeaways. Interchangeable safeties help disguise coverages.

"Every time you put a defense together, it's different," Donatell said. "Where do you find a linebacker as experienced as [Eric] Kendricks and his movement and his balance? He's got a natural feel for time, distances and space — where do you find that? Where do you find a Harrison Smith, that experience? Danielle? All kinds of pieces. The fun thing about it is that it's different every time."

Za'Darius Smith, the former Packers star who signed in free agency, is one veteran schooled in the new defense. The chance to reunite with former Packers assistants Mike Pettine, the Vikings' assistant head coach, and Mike Smith, the linebackers coach, drew him over the border.

"I'm here with my coaches, so I'm familiar with everything," Smith said. "Just being able to drop in coverage and move around in the front."

Most defenders are adjusting. Kendricks spent seven years manning middle linebacker in Zimmer's 4-3 defense, and now he's paired with another interior linebacker in Jordan Hicks, the ex-Cardinals starter who signed in free agency.

Kendricks said his responsibilities in this playbook are more flexible.

"It's a little more ambiguous at times," he said. "It allows me to make decisions on the run, make plays, run around really. I like it."

Defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson said he feels like he's going back to his roots, where he played in 3-4 — or "odd" — fronts at the University of Alabama and with the Giants. The overhaul has him feeling optimistic after joining the Vikings' 30th-ranked defense last year.

"Having Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith on the outside, and having three big guys in the middle who can also bump out to outside and switch up the schematics across the board, you don't know where we're going to be at," Tomlinson said. "It's going to help us out a lot."

"The sky is the limit with all the pieces we have," he added.