Notebook: Vikings want young, struggling secondary to stay the course
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Defensive coordinator Alan Williams jogged to the podium for his weekly Thursday press conference, belated by post-walkthrough talks with his struggling defense.
Defensive end Brian Robison and safety Jamarca Sanford were just two sets of ears listening in on Williams' plan to reverse their tumultuous season that has them currently at 1-6 after allowing 32.1 points per game.
"We want this to be the model of the NFL. To be that, you have to build a firm foundation. You have to go through, sometimes, some growing pains, which we are right now," Williams said. "You don't want it, but to build something solid, sometimes you have to go with that."
The Vikings cornerbacks, part of a unit allowing a fourth-worst 288 passing yards per game, remained on the field for extra instruction before facing a Dallas Cowboys' team on Sunday that is third in the NFL with 18 touchdown passes.
Williams' message wasn't specific to his secondary, but he did want to address that unit on its own.
"Sometimes when you're maybe not getting interceptions or playing as well as you think you should, you're thinking, 'I need to do more. I need to go over here and make up for someone else,'" Williams said. "My message is, don't do that. Be more detailed and if we tackle better, if we run to the ball more, if we execute assignments better, the results will be better. That's one thing that we continue to reinforce."
Despite losing just one member in cornerback Antoine Winfield, the Vikings' secondary has taken a debilitating step back as they're on pace to allow a franchise-record 42 passing touchdowns this season.
The Vikings have essentially started rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who comes in during their often-used nickel packages. Rhodes was flagged for pass interference on Sunday night and has battled through learning how to defend NFL-caliber throws, such as the back-shoulder play that burned him numerous times against the Green Bay Packers.
"If it's not working, that means that you figure out if it's the reason, maybe, why it's not working. And then you stick to, again, you stick to what you do," Williams said. "I have children - and I know our guys aren't children - but it takes solid, keep doing, keep sticking to it, keep grinding."
Cornerbacks Josh Robinson and Chris Cook haven't developed as the coaching staff expected as both are still experiencing growing pains - more understandably Robinson as he's playing the nickel cornerback role for the first time in his football-playing career.
Williams has had to alter some schemes week-to-week to make things easier for Robinson as he grows into his relatively new role.
"For me personally, I've seen it in different coverages, where they're adjusted so it's a cleaner read for me so I don't have to read linemen in certain defenses and stuff like that," Robinson said. "I thank them for that, but always try to make sure they're not making the game plan too simple just for me."
Still, at Week 9, the Vikings aren't going to be as patient as they were in training camp. Cornerback Marcus Sherels swapped some snaps with Robinson in the slot in Sunday night's loss to the Green Bay Packers as that seems to be a continuing plan.
Sherels is undersized, much like Winfield, but the Vikings' punt returner is the surest tackler in their secondary with safety Harrison Smith out.
"We were just doing some rotation," Robinson said. "That's something the coaches talked about previously. We'll continue to do that."
Already without Smith, the Vikings could be without Cook (hip) and Sanford (groin) as both have missed Wednesday's and Thursday's practices.
The Vikings' special teams units were some of the best in the NFL last season, but coordinator Mike Preifer's punt coverage uncharacteristically allowed a return for a touchdown by Packers' cornerback Micah Hyde on Sunday night.
The Packers were so impressed, they're reportedly naming Hyde their new kick returner after his 93-yard score at the Metrodome. Entering Week 8, the Packers were dead-last in the NFL in kick-return average with just 15.3 yards per return.
"We didn't squeeze like we should, weren't over the ball like we should've been," Priefer said. "They did a really nice job of blocking us. We had a couple guys pushed out of the play and I was shocked, the way we had been covering punts the last two years, I was shocked."
"Hopefully that's been resolved. That one hurt, that one hurt against a good team."
Rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after his 109-yard return for a touchdown on the opening kickoff and he'll match talents against the Cowboys' Dwayne Harris, who is second to Patterson on the NFL's yards-per-return list, on Sunday.
Patterson's 109-yard score sets the NFL record for longest kickoff return in an era where many teams are content with taking the touchback.
"But the teams that have good returners are the ones taking those chances," Priefer said. "This week we play Dallas. Dwayne Harris is having a great year, they're going to bring him out."
Running back Adrian Peterson has just 36 carries for 150 yards in his past three games.
As the Vikings' offense ranks last in the league in time of possession, Peterson said he's had to use a heating pad to stay loose, especially as he's dealt through a hamstring strain.
It's tough to stay warm when the Vikings' hold onto the ball for a season-low 19:06-of-60:00, like they did on Sunday night.
"That worked out well. But any time you can get going, it can create some drives so obviously that helps with you being loose," Peterson said. "Not only me, but other guys, too. Guys are sitting down for seven, eight, 10 minutes, you're going to get stiff. I'm just going to stay with the same routine, keep a heat pad on there. I'll be ready to roll."
The Vikings' run game has hit a wall since returning from the bye week as Peterson hasn't topped the 100-yard mark since his 140-yard outing in London against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 29.