Safety Last—Vikings Still Undecided on Strong Safety
Image courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn, USA Today Sports“We need to keep evaluating them,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Some of them--there wasn’t a lot of action in some of the plays for them, and that’s the one problem with safeties, sometimes you don’t get a lot of action. We have got to continue to evaluate them again this week and probably the fourth preseason game, too. We are going to keep dividing the reps, try and rotate guys in there and figure out what’s the best way to go.”
Using that logic—unable to evaluate until there is some action at a position that doesn’t always see a lot--we could be here awhile. Suffice it to say, it’s a situation that won’t be resolved soon.
But safety is a crucial position for any defense, and according to Peter King of SI.com, it’s importance has increased over time as spread offenses have widened the field and used tight ends for mismatches against safeties.
“Cornerbacks and pass rushers remain essential,” he said. “If your corners can’t cover, you’re hamstrung. If your pass rushers can’t generate pressure, you’re playing uphill. But if you don’t have quality safeties, you’re ultimately at a creative disadvantage.”
Zimmer has long been known as a creative defensive coordinator, so the situation at safety may be starting to get under his skin. The Vikings have a quality free safety in Harrison Smith, who as a rookie in 2012 grabbed the starting job and played every game until injuring his toe and missing the final eight games of 2013. He has returned this year ready to make another major contribution, and it is already becoming apparent how Zimmer plans to use him—as a mobile free safety moving up to the line for run protection and blitzing in addition to his coverage duties.
But he can’t do it alone, and the signing of 34-year old Chris Crocker after the first week of training camp was the first sign that the team wasn’t happy with who they had at strong safety. Robert Blanton was the initial leading candidate for strong safety until he injured his hamstring in camp, precipitating the signing of Crocker (who is very familiar with Zimmer’s defense) for depth.
With Smith having one safety spot locked down, the second spot is clearly still up for grabs, and going into the second preseason game, Zimmer wanted to look at four players: Jamarca Sanford, Kurt Coleman, Andrew Sendejo and Crocker.
“Well, there was Crocker, when he was in there he didn’t get a lot of action,” Zimmer said. “Coleman did some good things, [but] he missed a tackle. (Andrew) Sendejo did some good things when he was down close to the line of scrimmage. But you know part of it is for me evaluating the safety is not when they are down by the line of scrimmage, it’s when they are back and when they have to cover guys and we didn’t get in as many of those situations the other night as I had hoped, whether it was because of what they were doing or what they were calling.”
Sanford had 38 snaps in the game, so Zimmer got a long look at him—as have Vikings fans who’ve seen him in and out of the starting lineup since he was drafted by Minnesota in 2009. A hard hitter like Smith and a decent special teams player, Sanford might not have the complimentary cover skills the Vikings may be looking for in a strong safety—although the coaching staff says they want all their safeties versatile enough to do it all.
With those four players admittedly in Zimmer’s sights, it appears to put Mistral Raymond on the outside looking in at a spot. Having come back from a head injury in the first preseason game, he practiced all week but had very limited snaps at safety against Arizona. That could have been injury precaution or it could be a bad sign for Raymond.
When asked about injured cornerback Josh Robinson (hamstring) recently, Zimmer offered up the old adage of “it’s tough to make the club in the tub,” but the same could be said of Blanton, who started atop the depth chart since OTAs, but has been hampered by a hamstring in camp and unable to demonstrate his talents in game action. Blanton rejoined practice on Monday day and will get a look against the Chiefs on Saturday. But he has to make up for lost time quickly and, more importantly, stay on the field. Zimmer already seems to be losing patience with injury problems throughout his secondary unit.
“We’re still trying to look at all of them,” Zimmer said of the safeties. “Blanton will get a lot of time this week, because I haven’t seen him yet. We’ll give him a lot of plays. The rest of them, we are going to try and split up the time the best we can. Sometimes, unfortunately, if we just had a scrimmage we could kind of plot it all out but sometimes when you are playing against somebody it’s a little more difficult with situations and personnel and that stuff.”
The bottom line as the first cut-down day nears (Aug. 26) is that little clarity exists at this important position. Vikings fans should be familiar with the uncertainty at safety, since a carousel has revolved in the team’s secondary for several seasons now. But a decision is needed, as chemistry between Smith and his fellow safety must begin to develop.
If Blanton shows what he did in OTA’s to get Zimmer’s attention—and he stays on the field--the position might be there for taking. If not, look for age (experience) to win out over young and not yet reliable. Crocker brings familiarity with Zimmer’s defense, leadership and a willingness to get on the practice field. I look for him to win the job alongside Smith as the team’s starting strong safety.
"I've been a starter 99.9 percent of my career, so I didn't come here to sit around and watch the show,” Crocker told the Pioneer Press. “I want to be a part of it."
We ought to know sometime before opening kickoff on Sept. 7.