Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther go way back. The respected defensive coaches linked up and became fast friends in 2008, when Zimmer was hired as Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator. Guenther already was on staff, helping several different position groups.
Guenther took over the linebacker corps in 2012, and was given the defensive coordinator job Zimmer vacated to become Minnesota Vikings head coach. Guenther could've gone with Zimmer to Minnesota – or to Washington with Jay Gruden, for that matter -- but stayed put and on a path that eventually paired him with Jon Gruden as Raiders defensive coordinator.
Guenther and Zimmer remain friends. Their families are close.
So are their defensive schemes. That's logical, considering how long Guenther worked under Zimmer running an excellent defense.
"The foundation of it came from him, for sure," Guenther said. "The coverage, the fronts, all the stuff we do. I owe him a lot of gratitude from working with him. I learned a lot from him, but I'm going to try and kick his ass on Sunday."
Guenther and Zimmer will throw new wrinkles into familiar systems when the Raiders and Vikings clash at U.S. Bank Stadium, trying to keep the other team off balance and counter any insight provided to their respective offensive staffs. These two know each other well and how each other thinks, meaning this coaching chess match will have an influence on Sunday's outcome.
"Paul will always have his spin on things, that's kind of how he's always been, but I think they'll be much, much improved," Zimmer said in a conference call. "They've got much better talent all the way across the board. I think former [Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict] really helps them get guys lined up and he understands their system so well, but they've got good players upfront. They're much, much improved in the backend in my opinion as well, so yeah I think they are going to continue to get better."
Zimmer's right. The Raiders have improved this year, with talent upgrades and greater scheme comfort. It's early yet, but the Raiders rank fifth in run defensive with 63 yards allowed per game. The pass rush still has issues, but they have five sacks in two contests. That's a step in the right direction, even if the pass defense as a whole needs some work. Guenther's scheme is effective, as we're seeing as the Raiders acquire more quality players.
While the Raiders are rebuilding their defense slowly and largely through the NFL draft, the Vikings are an established crew with most impact players having worn purple a long, long time.
"We know Mike Zimmer's scheme is a very solid, very successful scheme since his time in the NFL," Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "Also, now you add players as well. They're very talented on defense and again, as you mentioned, they've had a number of players that they've drafted that they've been able to keep in their second contracts. That's very rare. He's been able to maintain continuity in terms of personnel, and he's maintained continuity in terms of scheme being there. Certainly a challenge for us."
It will be a bit easier on Sunday for a few reasons. The Raiders' offense has been practicing against this scheme all spring and summer, so quarterback Derek Carr knows it well. Guenther also has insight on Zimmer and vice versa, adding intrigue to this matchup.
"The systems are very similar," Guenther said. "Obviously, he's doing his wrinkles and I'm doing mine, but ‘Zim' is a good coach. I learned a lot from him. We worked together a long time in Cincinnati and we had a really good time. He's a good friend."