Notebook: With NFL's worst pass D, Frazier keeps door open to Winfield
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Deep into their early-season bye week, the Minnesota Vikings have held back on making any drastic changes after a 1-3 start primarily born from the NFL's worst pass defense and 30.8 points per game allowed (29th).
Behind closed doors, coach Leslie Frazier and his staff have likely mulled over the means of brining in former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, who is currently retired and living with his family in Texas after getting cut by the Vikings and essentially receiving the same fate this summer in a deep Seattle Seahawks' secondary.
Frazier stuck by his current personnel, which includes injured cornerback Chris Cook (groin) and safety Jamarca Sanford (hamstring), but once again, he left the door open when directly asked about Winfield.
"We knew going in that we'd have some new guys playing some positions and there would be some growing pains along the way and we're experiencing that," Frazier said. "But we've got to keep bringing them along and keep hoping that they're going to improve, which they are, I mean they are improving in some areas, but this bye week should help us."
"But we've talked about a lot of things in ways that we can try and help our secondary."
The Vikings' league-worst secondary also features the NFL's most targeted cornerback in Josh Robinson.
Robinson, 22, has allowed 35 receptions on 38 targets for nearly 400 yards, all worst in the league, according to ProFootballFocus.com. The second-year slot cornerback is in his first year of the position after taking over for Winfield. He started six games as a rookie on the outside and still does, but switches into the nickel cornerback in the team's often-used nickel package.
Despite the tumultuous start, the Vikings have stuck by Robinson, at least publicly, and haven't overtly fed to rumor mill should they be pressing for Winfield's return.
"[Robinson] has had some struggles, in particular inside playing the nickel position. That's been a challenge for him with all the things we ask that position to do," Frazier said. "He just has to continue to gain some experience and we'll get better because of that as he gains more experience. But we knew going in this offseason and even in training camp that there were going to be some moments that we would have to work through and we're experiencing some of that, but he's doing some good things as well."
The Vikings-Winfield relationship is complicated after he was publicly slighted by his sudden release in March, which saved the team his $7.25 million in base salary on the last year of his contract. The Vikings tried to get him back on a cheaper deal, but Winfield showed his disdain and took $2 million less to sign with the Seahawks before his release-retirement on Aug. 31.
Winfield played nearly 90 percent of the snaps last year, mostly in the team's often-used nickel package as the slot cornerback, where Robinson has proved to be a liability in the passing game and a non-factor on run defense. Robinson was targeted a season-high 15 times by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last week, for 13 receptions and 140 yards.
Rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes, arguably the team's best healthy cornerback, continues to play in a limited role on the left side of the defense. Robinson starts at left, leaving cornerback Marcus Sherels the only able body to fill in for the injured Cook, who starts at right. Frazier has opted to take a methodical approach with Rhodes, instead of starting him alongside Robinson in the base defense.
"[Rhodes] is playing a lot in our nickel package which almost equates to being a starter with the number of snaps you get," Frazier said. "We'll see how he continues to progress."
Rhodes played 55 of 79 snaps on Sunday [70%] and continues to look more comfortable in man coverage, when he has one receiver to lock on. He registered his first pass deflection on Sunday to start the fourth quarter, but his aggressiveness came back to bite him when he came up empty on an interception, allowing a 36-yard catch to Steelers' receiver Jericho Cotchery on the final drive's first play.
"If [Rhodes] makes that play the game is over. I like the aggressiveness. We worked on that play, he anticipated, he was there and came up a little bit short," Frazier said. "You don't want to stifle that aggressiveness at the corner. The fact that he had enough gumption to go try it, that's a good thing, but if you don't make the interception, you have to make the tackle. You can't do both, but he'll learn from it and fortunately we survived it. That's part of some youth in the secondary."
Frazier said both Cook and Sanford should practice on Monday after returning from the bye week.
Vikings' Pro Bowl fullback Jerome Felton made a successful return to the field on Sunday after serving a three-game suspension to start the season, which came after an emergency appendectomy that held him out of all but the first preseason game on Aug. 9.
Running back Adrian Peterson had his most productive game of the season behind Felton, gaining 140 yards and two touchdowns on a 6.1-per-carry average. The Vikings used Felton in a variety of run-heavy packages, motioning him in and out of the backfield, inline and offset along with tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson.
"It definitely created a comfort level for Adrian knowing that Jerome was out there. He didn't have to talk through certain things, there's just a synergy between the two of them and for our offensive line it's like having an extra blocker because of his success as a lead blocker," Frazier said. "I think it definitely helped and Adrian had a terrific day and I think Jerome had a part to say in that."
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave often opts to start two tight ends over a fullback, evident by Felton's seven starts as a Pro Bowler last year. But he played an integral role on Sunday, seeing 27 of 54 snaps [50%].
Rookie receiver Cordarrelle Patterson leads the NFL with his 33.8 yards per return through four games. Despite averaging 11 snaps on offense, Patterson was named the NFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September on Thursday.
Patterson has one of two kickoff returns for touchdowns in the NFL so far this season, along with Denver Broncos return man Trindon Holliday. Patterson scored his first career touchdown on the opening kickoff at the Chicago Bears on Sept. 15, taking it back 105 yards.
The Vikings have given the seldom-used rookie the green light on kickoffs, assuring they get the most out of him on that front.
"Yeah, we do have a lot of trust in him for sure. We have some parameters on when he can bring it out and when he doesn't, but it's not by yards," Frazier said. "We think he can return one 109 yards, 108 yards and he's done 105 so we trust his judgment. We do have some things we talk about when it comes to where the ball is kicked when he has to not return it, but he's made good decisions up to this point."
• Frazier allowed his players to take the bye week for themselves after returning from London on Monday. Despite being 1-3, Frazier said he's glad he stuck to his decision: "I had hopes and goals of where our record would be, but as we approached this week and got closer to this bye week, I stayed true to what my original thoughts were and I'm glad I did. I think it's important that our players get a chance to get away, take their minds off some things for a little bit and also physically get reengaged from a physical standpoint as well."
• The quarterback situation appears to still be a toss up, depending on how healthy starter Christian Ponder (ribs) is throughout the week. He captained the team's 0-3 start, having a hand in seven of the team's 10 turnovers. But Frazier said Cassel's three near-turnovers on Sunday will be taken into consideration: "Without question, I think you have to look at the entire picture and I definitely have to do that, yeah."
• Rookie punter Jeff Locke is directly in the middle of the pack, tied for 16th in the league with a 45.9-yards-per-punt average on 19 attempts through four games.