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Tribune News Service

Ed Donatell helped solve the NFL's best offenses. Can he fix the Vikings' defense?

Seeds for the dramatic change in the way the Vikings will play defense in 2022 were planted in the sod of Soldier Field and the offensively-gifted mind of Rams coach Sean McVay on the night of Dec. 9, 2018.

Bears 15, Rams 6 … and McVay utterly blown away by Chicago's 3-4 defense and the concoctions cooked up by coordinator Vic Fangio and his cohort, friend and defensive backs coach Ed Donatell.

Mitch Trubisky was the winning quarterback that night with three interceptions, 110 yards passing and a 33.3 passer rating.

How was that even possible against the second-highest scoring team in the fourth-highest scoring season in NFL history?

Because McVay's quarterback, Jared Goff, threw four interceptions with a 19.1 passer rating. Three weeks after he threw for 413 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Rams beat the Chiefs 54-51 in a modern-day thriller.

"Everything Vic and I poured into this defense since we first came together in San Francisco in 2011 is engineered to make life difficult for the best player in the game, the quarterback," said Donatell, the Vikings' new 65-year-old defensive coordinator, whose Purple debut comes against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

"We led the league in interceptions [27] and takeaways [36] in 2018. We set our group up with Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and those guys, and they took us to another step. Everyone has talent. It's how you present it. It's the way you position your men. It's the shell disguise."

It's not hyperbole to say what Fangio, Donatell and the Bears did to Goff and the Rams that night changed the course of football history for multiple teams, including the Vikings.

The Patriots under Bill Belichick had played more man coverage schemes than any other team heading into Super Bowl LIII two months later. With two weeks to prepare for the Rams, Belichick copied a lot of the Bears' zone concepts and won the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history 13-3.

In 2020, McVay hired 37-year-old Brandon Staley, Fangio's outside linebackers coach with the Bears and Broncos, as defensive coordinator. Staley's top-ranked defense earned him the Chargers' head coaching job a year later.

2021 also saw Green Bay's Matt LaFleur, another McVay disciple, hire Joe Barry, Staley's outside linebackers coach, as defensive coordinator. And McVay, realizing he didn't have the right quarterback to tangle with this fast-spreading defensive scheme, shipped Goff and two first-round picks to Detroit for Matthew Stafford.

The Rams won Super Bowl LVI, and offensive coordinator Kevin O'Connell landed in Minnesota looking for a defensive coordinator. He's really close to Staley, who's really close to Donatell.

"And that Fangio-Donatell family defense has really caused a lot of people problems," O'Connell said. "It puts a lot of stress on the quarterback."

Young at heart, body and soul

Donatell looks a decade or so younger than 65, still tells his three kids — including Steve, a Vikings defensive quality control assistant, and Tom, an assistant defensive backs coach with the Chargers — that he's in his late 40s, and stays lean like he was growing up as a football and basketball star in Stow, Ohio.

"Ed keeps himself in great shape," Fangio said. "Ed's also one of those guys who can eat like tomorrow's rumor and never put on weight. The guy's never missed a meal."

Steve Donatell laughs.

"Yeah, my dad and I have already been on a lot of late-night milkshake runs," he said. "But he's also very conscious about exercising. We're always sneaking in a 15-minute workout throughout the day. Plus, he's got great metabolism even at 65."

The Vikings are Ed Donatell’s seventh NFL team. He has spent the past 11 seasons working under Vic Fangio.

Ed's legs seemed younger than retirement age when he popped out of his seat at the 18-minute mark of an interview with a reporter. He looked like it was the late '70s and he was heading onto the field as the four-year defensive back starter he was at Glenville State in West Virginia.

"Just getting ansty," he said. "Gotta stand. Gotta keep moving."

The Vikings job is Donatell's 16th coaching stint since 1979, when he was at Kent State pursuing his master's degree and decided to beg the head coach, Ron Blackledge, for a gofer job that eventually led to a graduate assistant position.

"Coaching comes with a lot of commotion and firings," Steve Donatell said. "Dad's never flinched."

Donatell's third stint in Denver ended after the 2021 season when the Fangio-Donatell defense couldn't offset a debilitating deficiency at quarterback. The firing came after Denver ranked third in points allowed, its second top-10 ranking in three seasons.

"We never got quite enough takeaways in Denver," said Fangio, whose defenses ranked 25th, 29th and 21st in takeaways. "The system certainly lends itself to takeaways, but I think you need a few players who have a knack for it."

Fangio was available to the Vikings, but said they didn't try to hire him. Fangio is the guy who converted Donatell from a 15-year devotion to the 4-3 scheme instilled in him from time spent with Pete Carroll and Monte Kiffin. Fangio was the guy calling the defensive plays in their games the last 11 years. And he's also a year younger than Donatell.

Donatell's different looks

Mike Zimmer's defenses ranked fifth, sixth, first, ninth, and sixth in points allowed from 2015-19. Significant injuries and key losses in free agency contributed to the two-year slide — ranking 29th and 24th in points allowed — that cost Zimmer his job.

"Mike Zimmer put a nice foundation here," Donatell said. "There are a lot of principles we use that are the same. There is carryover that will be quite useful. But it is going to be different."

Let's ask some of the key figures to explain the benefits in the shift from a 4-3 defense with four down linemen and three linebackers to a 3-4:

— Donatell on having edge rushers in a standing position in a 3-4 as opposed to three-point stance in a 4-3: "It transfers to where football is offensively right now. ... Our guys are stood up to see those things happening. And four backers makes you more versatile with which backers you rush and from where you rush them."

— Edge rusher Danielle Hunter on his role in this defense compared to Zimmer's: "I feel a lot more loose, and I like that feeling."

— Cornerback Patrick Peterson on why there are more takeaway opportunities: "I just believe having more zone concepts gives players more opportunities to see the ball. When you have more eyes on the ball, it gives you more opportunities to make those plays. A lot of defenses I've been in, my back is to the quarterback nine times out of 10."

— Safety Harrison Smith on why this defense can look "muddy" to quarterbacks in that split-second after the ball is snapped: "There's not too much moving around before the snap. It's making things look the same and holding the disguise a little longer. You won't see me moving around as much pre-snap as I've done in the past."

— Inside linebacker Eric Kendricks on how long it will take him to get up to full speed in a new defense after a preseason when nary a key starter played a single down: "Honestly, it's just correlating the things I know about football and making those little adjustments. After that, I think once the ball is snapped, I have an innate ability to go get the rock."

— Za'Darius Smith on how this defense will look after coming from the same scheme in Green Bay: "Ed's a great teacher. He's laid back, which is nice, but he also can get on your butt when he has to. I think we're going to do great things in this defense."

Bouncing back from fourth-and-26 …

Donatell has been nothing if not resilient as he's evolved through the course of a roller-coaster career.

He won back-to-back Super Bowls in Denver as a secondary coach. He also went 0-12 at the University of Washington as defensive coordinator. The Packers gave him his first coordinator job in 2000. They also fired him Jan. 16, 2004, after his defense gave up the infamous fourth-and-26 conversion to Philadelphia while leading 17-14 with 1 minute, 12 seconds left in a divisional playoff loss.

Asked about that play 18 years later, Donatell sets his jaw and says, "The buck stops with me."

Brad Childress, the former Vikings coach who was Eagles offensive coordinator that day, sees it differently.

"It was a good call by Ed, but the rookie middle linebacker [Nick Barnett] didn't carry the middle of the field like he was supposed to," Childress said.

Barnett bit on a short route to the tight end. Freddie Mitchell ran wide open down the middle of the field for a 27-yard catch from Donovan McNabb.

Asked how long it took him to get over that play, Donatell shrugs and says, "Went to Atlanta [as defensive coordinator] right after that and we made the NFC Championship game the following season."

They lost again to the Eagles. And Childress.

"Ed's a guy I interviewed when I was looking for a defensive coordinator in Minnesota," said Childress, who first hired Mike Tomlin in 2006 and then promoted Leslie Frazier a year later when Tomlin got the Steelers head coaching job. "Then I worked with him in Chicago. He's a very well-rounded coach who impressed me with a breadth of knowledge, his communication skills and how tremendous he is with the players."

Donatell's first paid coaching job came from Carroll, who was defensive coordinator at the University of the Pacific and needed a defensive backs coach.

"I met Ed on an elevator at the national coaches convention a million years ago," Carroll said. "We started talking. He's always been a great worker. He loves the game. And he's always been creative and innovative in the role coaches play as teachers. That always left an impression on me."

Donatell said he learned from the soon-to-be 71-year-old Carroll how to lead and adapt as players and the game change. Mike Smith, the Vikings' outside linebackers coach, said Donatell reminds him of another 60-something coach who has stood the test of time in the NFL.

"Ed reminds me of Andy Reid," Smith said. "You never see him freak out. You never see him throwing stuff around. He's calm. Players today respect that."

Donatell says his career is on a perpetual "five-year plan." The journey began about six years before millennials like McVay and O'Connell were born. The ending is not even a consideration at this point.

"I never really wanted to get a job," Donatell said. "So when I was done playing, I begged my way into coaching and, honestly, I feel like I've never really worked a day in my life."

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