Vikings secondary faces early QB test
MANKATO, Minn. — The Murderer’s Row of quarterbacks the Vikings will face in the first month of the regular season was read to coach Mike Zimmer.
Tom Brady. Drew Brees. Aaron Rodgers.
“You forgot Matt Ryan and those two receivers they got,” said Zimmer, referring to the Atlanta quarterback and receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones.
You’d better believe Zimmer knows exactly who Minnesota will run into when the games start to count. The Vikings had one of the NFL’s worst secondaries last season, and it will be tested often and early in Zimmer’s first season.
Adding to any possible concern is a defensive backfield that has been banged up.
Six significant secondary players did not play because of injury or were hurt in last week’s preseason opener against Oakland, though all except safety Robert Blanton are expected to be available for Saturday’s game against Arizona at TCF Bank Stadium.
“That stretch is a tough stretch,” Zimmer said of the Vikings’ early season schedule. “But it is what it is. They aren’t going to cancel the games. Neither am I.”
After the Sept. 7 opener at St. Louis, the Vikings play host to Brady and New England on Sept. 14, travel to play Brees and New Orleans on Sept. 21, play host to Ryan and the Falcons on Sept. 28 and visit Rodgers and Green Bay on Oct. 2. Brady, Brees and Rodgers are all bound for the hall of fame, and Ryan has made two Pro Bowls this decade.
“I think it’s an opportunity to really showcase what you can do against elite quarterbacks,” Vikings cornerback Josh Robinson said.
Last year, though, Minnesota defensive backs got toasted by quarterbacks who are far from elite. Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer, for one, threw for 321 yards and rolled up 31 points against them.
And Zimmer got to see firsthand the Vikings’ troubles. As Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator, he watched Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton complete 27 of 38 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-14 win over Minnesota.
“I am very careful about judging people on prior (performances) because I don’t know what they are being told, I don’t know what they are being taught,” Zimmer said about having watched film of the Vikings’ 2013 secondary.
Regardless, it didn’t look good. The Vikings were 31st in the NFL in passing yards allowed at 287.2 per game.
“That was an issue,” Robinson said. “You definitely can’t have that in the NFL. You definitely got to improve, and that’s what we’re doing.”
The Vikings had a very young secondary last season. Cornerback Xavier Rhodes was a rookie, and Robinson and free safety Harrison Smith both were in their second year.
Those guys are a year older, and some veteran help has arrived.
The Vikings signed sixth-year cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who was much sought after in free agency, and last week they added safety Chris Crocker, 34, a 12-year veteran.
“(Crocker) is a veteran that also can help mentor these younger guys,” said Munnerlyn, 26. “I thought I was going to be the oldest guy in the secondary, but now we got another guy that can bring some knowledge to the safety position.”
On paper, the Vikings are looking better in the defensive backfield. A problem during training camp has been getting guys on the field.
Munnerlyn, battling Robinson for a starting job, missed the first week with a strained hamstring. Then Robinson missed time with his own hamstring problem and on Wednesday left practice early with an apparent ankle injury. Robinson declined to discuss that injury but said overall he’s doing “pretty good.”
At strong safety, Jamarca Sanford, last year’s starter, has had a recent back problem after sitting out all of spring drills because of a groin strain. And Blanton, No. 1 on the depth chart at strong safety, has been out the past two weeks with a strained hamstring, although Zimmer said he’s close to returning.
The injuries to Sanford and Blanton could pave the way for Crocker to start. He knows Zimmer’s system well, having been with him when he was defensive coordinator for Atlanta in 2007 and the past six years with the Bengals.
Also missing time have been safeties Andrew Sendejo, who has been recovering from offseason back surgery; Mistral Raymond, who suffered a head injury against the Raiders, and cornerback Marcus Sherels, who had a hamstring issue.
Rhodes, a budding star, has been fully healthy. So has Smith, a stalwart who missed eight games last season with a toe injury, another reason the secondary struggled.
The key to success?
“You’ve just got to be physical and stop letting them catch the ball all the time,” Munnerlyn said. “It’s the NFL. They’re going to win their share, but we’ve also got to win our share.”
Zimmer insists he’s not worried about his secondary. He’s understands what it is up against, having broken into the NFL as a defensive backs coach with Dallas in 1994.
“We are going to go out there and challenge the receivers, and hopefully we are going to play very, very good,” Zimmer said. “My expectation level is always really high.”