Vikings' Ball-hawking Defense is Trending
Image courtesy of Denny Medley-USA TODAY SportsTrending
It’s only preseason, but head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense is showing improvement. It appears to be a combination of new personnel (only three fulltime starters are back from last year—four if you count Xavier Rhodes) and new schemes that include an aggressive attitude and lots of player movement along the front line (linebacker Anthony Barr rushed the quarterback 14 times versus 50 snaps in coverage and Brian Robison played end, three technique and linebacker). Player movement and some disguised coverages are a huge upgrade, as last year quarterbacks recognized so many coverages they knew just what to do whenever they walked to the line. (Watch Jay Cutler point to his intended receiver on this winning touchdown.)
The changes to the Vikings defense resulted in a shutout until 25 seconds remained in the game against Kansas City, plus five sacks and three turnovers. The unit has only given up 17 points in three games, and that could have been equalled in a fourth quarter a season ago. We’ll say it again, it’s only preseason, but it’s a great sign.
If Zimmer was good hire No. 1 for the Vikings organization (and he was), good-get number 1A was hiring Norv Turner and his offense. In the preseason we have already witnessed a portion of a downfield passing attack we haven’t seen since Brett Favre threw to Sidney Rice (Cordarrelle Patterson looked a little like another No. 84 on his touchdown reception). We have seen greater utilization of all-pro tight end Kyle Rudolph, which fans have been clamoring for. We have watched a boot-to-the-throat mentality by passing into the endzone right after a big play (Teddy Bridgewater’s TD pass to Allen Reisner after Adam Thielen’s big punt return). And we haven’t even seen Adrian Peterson on the field yet. AP, who was seen chewing something on the sideline on Saturday night, is clearly champing at the bit to get into the action.
The Vikings running backs unit is in great shape. Despite the loss of backup Toby Gerhart to free agency, the Vikings have re-fortified the unit with the addition of Jerick McKinnon, who has looked good in just about every capacity he has played. Add him to the mix with Adrian Peterson and Matt Asiata—who rambled for 48 tough yards on 11 carries and caught two passes for 34 yards against the Chiefs) and you’ve got a deep position. The styles and skills of the three players are all varied enough to keep defenses on their toes. You may not see Peterson rushing for 2,000 yards this season, but you will see him carrying the ball into the endzone often.
From the position of your couch, watching the game on television, Captain Munnerlyn’s decision to run out of the endzone with the football did not look wise. But watching a review of it, and trying to view it from his perspective, it becomes a little more understandable coming from a 6-year vet. After he picked off Alex Smith’s throw in the endzone, Munnerlyn turned and for a moment saw nothing but green grass and a few white jerseys in front of him. He had to make a split-second decision and initially it looked like the right one.
But the momentum of his fellow defenders turned blockers (linebackers Anthony Barr and Chad Greenway and tackle Sharrif Floyd) carried them into the endzone and they weren’t able to quickly turn around and provide him some protection. Josh Robinson was behind Munnerlyn and saw his intention so he took out a trailing player, but the rest of the Chiefs quickly closed on him. In a sideline interview, safety Harrison Smith said he could see taking the ball out in a regular season game if there was something there, but I thought just the opposite. What have you got to lose in the preseason? Vikings fans deserved a little preseason excitement, so why not give it a try?
It was good to see Robinson get back onto the field Saturday (certainly his head coach was happy to see it), but not so much when he was called for a pass interference penalty that cost the team 40 yards. The good part about the play is that Robinson was in position to make one—something that was lacking last season at times and has been an overall improvement this season. Robinson needs to work on his technique, find the ball quicker and not hang an arm on the receiver before the ball arrives.
That Robinson was on time may be a testament to the scheme Zimmer and his defensive backs coach Jerry Gray are installing. It’s probably why Zimmer was so adamant in wanting to see Robinson back on the field. With the release of Derek Cox on Monday, Robinson’s chance at the third cornerback spot has improved—Zimmer just wants him to get out there to learn it and earn it. Look for him often in the final preseason game on Thursday.
I am in strong defense of Chris Crocker getting the start at strong safety in the regular season dress rehearsal—it should remain as such for the real games in two weeks. His experience and leadership are crucial to the entire unit, and he will be a steadying influence for a defense that has a lot of new faces.
I also think the decision to start Matt Cassel is worth defending—and I do that here.
Might be Ending
Safety Mistral Raymond’s time with the Vikings might be done. The oft-injured defender suffered another in Saturday’s game and was released on Sunday. Asked if he would return to the injured reserve, Zimmer said, “we don’t know yet.” Raymond must survive waivers and then would likely go on injured reserve. Stay tuned.
Is safety Jamarca Sanford next on the chopping block? He left the Chiefs game with an injured quad and has been injured off and on during training camp and preseason. Sanford has been a standout special teams player, and the special teams coach Mike Priefer knows his skills, but it is hard to impress the new coaches when you can’t get on the field. Sanford is definitely on the bubble and come Saturday during the next cuts it could burst.
Can we end the worrying over kicker Blair Walsh’s below average performance in the preseason? Walsh went 3-for-3 on field goals against the Chiefs outside at Arrowhead Stadium. He may still need to get more consistent at his new home park, TCF Bank Stadium, but he seems back on track. Part of Walsh’s problem was the precedent he set for himself as a rookie: an NFL record for consecutive kicks of 50 yards-plus. As Priefer had said, he needed to make some adjustment and it appears he has. But do we need to start worrying about the punter?
Let us be the first to say that a 3–pick night was glorious for the interception-challenged Vikings defense and the turnover-starved fan base. Is the long interception drought finally ending? Munnerlyn’s pick was a veteran-savvy bait and undercut the route play and it was done against a pro. Likewise, when Chad Greenway picked off Alex Smith, it originally looked he was out of position and lucked into it, but he showed great anticipation and a nice break on the ball. If this is what Zimmer and the new defensive scheme will bring, then put me down for a “Hallelujah!”