This Defense Will Give Zimmer Wood(s)

Sep 20, 2020; Arlington, Texas, USA; Dallas Cowboys cornerback safety Xavier Woods (25) celebrates after they recovered an on-side kick in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

On a loaded defense and part of a star-studded free agency class, it’s understandable to overlook safety Xavier Woods. Throughout OTAs and minicamp, Woods’ name continued to pop up amongst teammates, coaches, and media members as someone who stood out. 

This offseason, the Vikings moved on from Anthony Harris after playing the last 6 years with the team — last year under the franchise tag. Woods arrived on a one-year, $1.75 million dollar deal after a down season in Dallas during 2020. Like the Vikings other free agent secondary options, Woods signed to a one-year deal, with hopes for a revival under the tutelage of defensive back czar Mike Zimmer. 

Woods v. Harris

Woods faces the unenviable task of replacing fan-favorite, Anthony Harris. Since 2017, Woods’ first year, both safeties have shared a similar track record statistically speaking. Harris is more of a ballhawk at this stage of his career, accounting for 12 takeaways to Woods’ seven forced turnovers over the same timeframe. Although Woods has shown ample ability to be opportunistic when the ball is in the air.

Both Woods and Harris had average years as tacklers, each with 7.7% and 8.8% missed tackle percentage, respectively. Woods did account for more tackles than Harris last year, mainly because he was lined up [most of the time] in the box as a strong safety. Woods will not be tasked with lining up at strong safety much this year as All-Pro Harrison Smith will man that position — just like last two years. 

1Anthony Harris20172020176114385139
2Xavier Woods20172020186017275325

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Generated 6/25/2021.

On Smith, playing next to a player of his caliber should only help to elevate Woods’ game. Harris had two elite seasons, 2018 and 2019, lined up next to Smith. Pairing Woods with Smith, Zimmer, and a revamped defensive line will allow for Woods to flourish. In his four season as a pro, Woods has maintained an above-average Pro Football Focus seasonal ranking in three of those four years. The exception was last year when he graded as average. But the Dallas defense, as a whole, was rancid. 

Since the 2017 season, a Zimmer-run Vikings defense has finished with a higher overall PFF defensive grade each year compared to Dallas. This should, in theory, set Woods up aptly for a career year. This is especially the case when looking at how Zimmer schemes with his safeties.

Safeties in a Zimmer Scheme 

Debuting as a defensive coordinator in 2000 with the Dallas Cowboys, Zimmer has always benefited from above-average to elite safety play to some extent. Whether it was Roy Williams and Darren Woodson in Dallas, Reggie Nelson and George Iloka in Cincinnati, or hell — even the ageless Lawyer Malloy during his one season in Atlanta. 

That trend continued when Zimmer was hired in 2014 and inherited a 3rd-year pro in Smith. The Notre Dame alumnus has, for the most part, been deployed in tandem with only two other starting safeties during the Zimmer tenure. Those two were the aforementioned Harris and Andrew Sendejo. Sendejo graded above average to elite from 2016-2019 according to PFF.

Woods, for what it’s worth, already has his Sendejo imitation down.

Since 2014, the Vikings have had only five players start more than five games at the safety position. Every NFL team not named Vikings has experienced more turnover at the position when applying the same metrics. That continuity has allowed Zimmer to deploy a variety of wrinkles within his defensive scheme. Absent new deals for Smith or Woods before next offseason, that continuity will be bucked heading into 2022.

What to Expect 

With both starting safeties set to become free agents next spring, the future could very well be now in Minnesota. That’s a prevalent talking point this spring and summer.

The Vikings will most likely make a play to retain Harrison Smith at some point before the season or early next spring. With all signs pointing towards Woods having a bounceback year after a down 2020 campaign, he will presumably hit free agency seeking to cash in. The depth behind these two is also a concern. Should either man go down with an injury, the Vikings will be thrusting a rookie or one-year veteran into the starting lineup.

That brings us back to Woods and the pressure he must face being the Jekyll to Harrison’s Hyde. Information continues to leak from teammates and coaches, showering Woods with praise for his OTAs performance. 

Whether it is from All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson stating Woods is “Always going to be where he needs to be, going to make the right checks.” Or from new senior defensive assistant Paul Guenther blushing about how good of a communicator Woods is within this new defensive scheme (Guenther can be seen talking with Woods at the 1:26 mark in the video below.)

Guenther should know — he worked as an understudy for Zimmer before with Cincinnati before departing to take the defensive coordinator job with the Las Vegas Raiders. Anticipate Zimmer and Guenther disguising their looks by constantly shifting safety alignment and coverage responsibilities. This cements why Guenther made it a point to talk up Woods on his communication skills — the defense is absolutely dependent on it.  

The early excitement and return on Woods are verifiable. To a degree, his ability to master the playbook will tell the tale of the success of the Vikings defense this year. Other new defensive additions will assuredly play their part as well, but the symbiotic relationship between Woods and Smith could prove to be the defensive linchpin. For now, at least until the season starts, we can revel in what is yet to come…

…And also this Harrison-esq hit from Woods!