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Updated: September 20th, 2012 10:02pm
Pelissero: Vikings 'D' seeking answers entering 'meat of our schedule'

Pelissero: Vikings 'D' seeking answers entering 'meat of our schedule'

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Antoine Winfield says he's trying not to make comparisons to last season, but how could you not?

In their first three games of 2011, the Minnesota Vikings gave up go-ahead scores in the final 6 minutes or overtime against San Diego, Tampa Bay and Detroit, losing all three games to set the stage for a 3-13 finish.

Two games into 2012, the Vikings have surrendered a go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of a game they rallied to win in overtime against Jacksonville and a tiebreaking field goal with 23 seconds to go in Sunday's loss at Indianapolis.

"You can't think about that," Winfield said. "Every season and every game is different. But there are some similarities."

Namely, when they've needed to most, the Vikings' opponents have thrown the ball at will.

On those five late-game drives, quarterbacks have combined to complete 17 of 22 passes for 257 yards, two touchdowns and a 145.5 passer rating.

That includes drives by Jacksonville and Indianapolis that covered 121 yards in only 10 plays, with four gains of 20 yards or more through the air.

"We said that we wanted to be situational, smart football players, and I think that's taken time -- more time than we would like," defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. "But we still have to know the situation in the ballgame and know how to execute the coverage within the situation that's presented."

Granted, the Vikings' offense bailed them out against the Jaguars, ensuring they wouldn't repeat last season's 0-4 start. The defense got the stop it needed in overtime.

But the Colts' four-play, 45-yard drive for a winning field goal was the latest deflating moment for unit that has spent so much time in recent months talking about finishing.

"There are probably some things we'd like to do a little bit better, and we have to get that done as we go forward," coach Leslie Frazier said.

"You hate to come up on this short end, when you don't come through like we did in this past ballgame. But we have to learn from it and we have to be better at it, because we're going to find ourselves in other situations like that. That's the way a lot of our games are."

Things were supposed to be different with Williams replacing demoted Fred Pagac, whose desire to run a Man/Cover-1 scheme clashed with Frazier's Tampa-2 background. Instead, when the Vikings needed a stop the most, things have stayed the same.

That might explain why a 35-year-old cornerback made a rare address to his young teammates on Monday, delivering a message that all but questioned their toughness and made clear some things must change beginning this week against mighty San Francisco.

"I maybe did it like two or three times since I've been here," Winfield said. "But I felt something was needed. I didn't think we played as physical as we needed to play last week against the Colts. This week, we have a challenge."

San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith has completed 70.2% of his passes this season for 437 yards, four touchdowns and a 115.9 rating. They have a balance of perimeter weapons between Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, not to mention the NFL's second-ranked rushing offense.

The challenge starts from within, though, and it might be one the Vikings simply aren't built to overcome it. The biggest pass plays they've allowed so far have been matters of execution, not missed assignments, and it's tough to teach players not to be physically overmatched.

Jacksonville's Cecil Shorts III beat cornerback Chris Cook for a 39-yard touchdown in Cover-3. Indianapolis' Donnie Avery won a footrace against Winfield for a 41-yard gain in man-to-man. Reggie Wayne beat linebacker Erin Henderson for a 30-yard touchdown in Tampa-2.

After knotting the score at 20 on Sunday, the Vikings promptly gave up two 20-yard completions to the Colts, who accepted a penalty on their third play and kicked a 53-yard field goal to win it, all in 23 seconds.

"It was execution, bad execution," Winfield said. "The first play, we're in the Cover-2 and Luck scrambled outside the pocket and made a good throw down the sideline. (The second play) was a zone blitz and they hit the weakness of the zone and got in field-goal range. Can't allow that to happen."

There are technique issues to pick apart, such as why Cook wasn't getting a reroute in Cover-2 on the first play of the drives against Jacksonville or Indianapolis.

There are scheme issues, such as why the Vikings seemed to go into a prevent version of their base coverages late against the Colts, with the safeties nearly 30 yards deep.

"You have to find that balance when you want to play zone or man or pressure and try to make those decisions," Frazier said. "Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't, but you have to keep coming up with ways to try to defend those situations and that's what we're going to continue to do."

There are interrelated issues with the Vikings' pass rush, too. They have four sacks through two games, but only one by the defensive line.

The longer the quarterback can extend the play, the more stress it puts on the back end, particularly in zone coverage. The voids become too easy to exploit.

No one fears the Vikings will make a play on the ball either. They tied for last in the NFL last season with eight interceptions and have only two in their past 13 games.

"We need to elevate our play," Winfield said. "Create turnovers. Put our offense on some short fields where they can go down and score some points. Not give up big plays. Not give up a lot of points at the end of games where we have the lead."

That last part may not be an issue on Sunday against a 49ers team that is among the NFC's best, nor against Detroit the following week -- in the veteran Winfield's words, "the meat of our schedule."

The Vikings are in rebuilding mode, and their other top four defensive backs entered the season with 13 career starts combined. The operative word here is progress, and in the most crucial situations so far, they've seen none.

Asked what part of the 2-minute defense has been the biggest frustration, Williams said, "Just that the situations that presented themselves, we should get off the football field and when you don't get off, everyone is disappointed that you're not executing the defense the way it should be executed.

"All they can do is look forward and make sure that next time that situation presents itself, learn from it and do better. If we keep dwelling on last week, last week, last week, we never move on, we never learn from it, we never get better. So, that's the challenge to them is to learn from it, move on and get better."

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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