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Zimmer focusing on improving Vikings' pass defense

Chicago Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, right, is tackled by Minnesota Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes during the first quarter of a game Dec. 1, 2013 on Mall of America Field at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. USA TODAY Sports

EDEN PRAIRIE — New Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is defensive-minded with an expertise in teaching defensive backs. The Vikings are coming off a season in which they ranked last in the league in touchdown passes allowed (37), first-down passes allowed per game (15.4), completions allowed per game (26.2) and blown leads in the final minute of regulation (five).

So, naturally, Zimmer has been a fixture in the secondary during the team’s organized team activities (OTAs) this offseason.

“I think we have improved quite a bit back there,” he said. “We’re doing a much better job in the coverage than early on in the first minicamp (in late April). We’re understanding coverages better. We are playing a lot tighter.

“We still have got a ways to go. You can’t play any bump and run in these OTAs so that will be our next big emphasis in the back end when we finally get to training camp, working on bump and run, because we need to be good at that.”

Zimmer, who spent the previous 12 seasons as defensive coordinator in Dallas, Atlanta and Cincinnati, is in the process of drastically changing the defensive system the Vikings have played since 2006. Instead of the more reactive Cover 2-based scheme, the Vikings will be playing more press coverage with more blitz packages and possibly more multiple fronts.

The Bengals relied on a lot of press coverage last season under Zimmer. They responded by allowing just 5.9 yards per catch, which ranked No. 2 behind only the champion Seattle Seahawks. Cincinnati also gave up only 22 passing touchdowns.

A key figure in Zimmer’s plans for the secondary is second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes. Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, is a big corner with definite press-coverage ability. During Wednesday’s OTA session, his skills clearly were on display when he intercepted starting quarterback Matt Cassel on a quick hitch and returned it for a touchdown during the team scrimmage portion of practice.

“Xavier has a lot of ability,” Zimmer said. “I mean, he’s a very, very talented guy and so I’m talking to him about being the same guy every single day and every play — not one play is good and one play is not as good. To be more focused, I guess is really the thing. He has a lot of ability. I’m excited to work with him.”

Left tackle Matt Kalil, who took a step back last year from his Pro-Bowl rookie season, was sidelined throughout most of the OTAs because of what he has described as minor knee surgery.

Kalil hasn’t participated in the limited number of OTAs that have been open to the media this offseason. He didn’t participate when reporters were allowed to watch on Wednesday, but said he did participate on Tuesday.

“I was out there (Tuesday) maybe pushing myself a little too hard, so I had to scale back (Wednesday),” Kalil said. “But I’m getting closer and expect to be ready to go soon.”

Kevin Murphy continued to work with the first team, but Kalil said he’ll be back in the lineup when training camp starts next month.

There is no area in which the team’s new coaching regime didn’t look to improve when it took over in January. And that includes what the players eat while at team headquarters or in next month’s training camp.

For instance, the Vikings have removed bacon, fried items, mayonnaise and creamy-based sauces from their menu.

Coach Mike Zimmer said the approach is helping the team. He claims the team has lost a combined 170 pounds of fat and gained 70 pounds of muscle.

“It’s a collective effort,” Zimmer said. “The strength coaches and trainers brought it to my attention. So, heck, I think even (general manager) Rick (Spielman) said he’s lost some weight.

“I think I’ve actually lost weight too, but I think that’s from stress. I’m eating fish every day for lunch. That’s a change for me too.”

Rookie first-round pick Anthony Barr will be with the team for minicamp after finally ending his college course work at UCLA, where the quarters system ran through June 13. Barr, the ninth overall pick in May and Minnesota’s presumed starting strong-side linebacker, earned a 3.0 GPA at UCLA entering exam week, when he was divvying his attention between the iPad loaded by the Vikings coaching staff with defensive assignments and terminology and preparation for a commencement ceremony six days before minicamp opened.