Although Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer have faced each other only once as NFL head coaches, the two have plenty of experience in gamesmanship with one another from time together in Cincinnati.
According to the record books of the National Football League, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer have only coached against each other one time. On Nov. 2, 2014, running back Matt Asiata's one-yard touchdown run with 3:27 remaining proved to be the difference as Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings defeated Gruden's Washington Redskins, 29-26.
However, the reality is Gruden and Zimmer had been coaching against each other well before that November 2014 day in Minnesota. Zimmer was already into his fourth season as defensive coordinator of the Cincinnati Bengals when Gruden was hired as the team's offensive coordinator prior to the 2011 season. Throughout their three seasons together, Gruden and Zimmer did tactical battle each day on the practice fields in Cincinnati – interactions that were not usually friendly, according to Gruden.
"We would get pretty competitive, we really would," Gruden said. "It was pretty entertaining, I'll tell you. It was a challenge, and really his style of coaching and his defensive play-calling made me a better coach actually."
"I guess we were always trying to beat each other, but when you're on the same team, you're just trying go against [each other]," Zimmer said. "It was always good chess matches."
The partnership forged by Gruden and Zimmer under Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was a successful one as Cincinnati made the playoffs in each of the three years that the men coached together. In 2013, the Bengals ranked sixth in offense and sixth in defense – the only NFL team to rank in the top six in both that season.
Following the 2013 season, Gruden and Zimmer each accepted their current respective positions – Gruden as head coach of the Redskins, Zimmer with the Vikings – and have found success quickly. Both coaches missed the playoffs in their first season, but both followed in 2015 with division titles.
The Redskins and Vikings have grown to look more and more like the background of their head coaches. Under Gruden, a former Arena Football League quarterback, Washington has developed one of the league's best passing attacks, ranking in the top five among NFL teams in yards and yards per attempt.
In Minnesota, Zimmer has molded arguably the league's best defense. Opponents have scored a league-low 126 points against the Vikings. Minnesota has allowed just 4.8 yards per play – third-best in the NFL – and is third in the NFL with 17 forced turnovers. Gruden will likely see some flashbacks to Cincinnati practices as he helps to get the Washington offense ready.
"You had to have a plan every day when you went to practice for your offense, otherwise they would embarrass you non-stop and (Zimmer) didn't care," Gruden said. "He would keep blitzing you and you'd better have an answer. We had some great competition. He made me better as a coordinator and made our offense better, quite frankly. Hopefully we did the same for his defense. But it was great competition and I have a lot of respect for him."
That defensive aggressiveness from Zimmer has not changed. The Vikings rank third in the NFL in sack yards with 157 and interceptions with 12. The Redskins have allowed just 11 sacks this season – tied for the fewest in the NFL.
"When I was in Cincinnati, I've seen some of the best quarterbacks come in there and walk out of there scratching their head," Gruden said.
Gruden will try to keep his quarterback, Kirk Cousins, from scratching his head Sunday. If Cousins's comments Wednesday were any indication, he and Gruden have an equal respect for what a Zimmer-led defense can do.
"I think they're well-coached and have a really good scheme," Cousins said. "And it starts there with Coach Zimmer and his scheme. And in addition they've got really good players. And in addition to having really good players, they've played together now for a few years so they have continuity and they're very smart football players. They're not just good athletes but they're smart, aware players. When you combine all that, it makes for a really tough unit."