Pelissero: Vikings aren't pressing Chris Cook to play more at the line
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- With each in-breaking route that connected on Chris Cook's side of the field in Sunday's loss at Washington, the question seemed more pressing.
Why does the Minnesota Vikings' 6-foot-2, 212-pound cornerback so often find himself playing off, rather than getting his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage?
"It depends on the game plan," Cook said this week. "Some weeks, we're like, 'All right, we're going to press all.' Sometimes, we're like, 'All right, well, you can press, you can bail, you can play off, you can play around with it, you can freestyle ...'"
Every team in the NFL mixes up its coverages and techniques. It's the only way to keep highly evolved offenses from exploiting a defense over and over with the same route combinations designed to beat a single look.
The Vikings, for instance, had become so predictable within their Tampa-2 scheme that one of new coordinator Alan Williams' first tasks upon taking the job in January was to analyze his personnel and work with coach Leslie Frazier to devise new wrinkles.
"I feel like our guys just want to know that we have changeups, because you see certain route concepts that attack certain coverages," Vikings defensive backs coach Joe Woods said. "When we can change up our coverage techniques and put them in a little better position, they feel better about it."
But if the Vikings are going to keep drafting long-levered corners built to beat up receivers at the line and sink in Cover-2, shouldn't a player such as Cook be doing that more often?
After all, it's coaches' job to put players in position to succeed. They generally ask for a specific technique based on each call and Cook's traits suggest his best chance is to throw off the timing of plays from go, not chase them down later.
"I feel like I'm just as good at either one," Cook said. "I played a lot of off against Tennessee (in a win on Oct. 7). I had a few breakups in that game, and I was always on the spot."
On the Redskins' first two scoring drives, Cook was caught three times playing what appeared to be a bailout technique in Cover-3 -- outside-leveraged coverage from an off position with a single safety over the top.
Robert Griffin III's play fakes kept sucking up the Vikings' linebackers, leaving the middle of the field wide open. Fred Davis caught slants for 15 and 16 yards and Leonard Hankerson ran another in-breaking route for a 14-yard gain Cook had little chance to stop.
"The routes that they were running creates problems when you play certain coverages, because you rely on underneath help to kind of provide some flight time on the football," Woods said. "With the zone-option that they were running, we were a little more aggressive in the run. So, we were really more in the chase position, just trying to make the tackle."
Cook pointed to one play he could have made if he'd stayed and square in his backpedal, rather than opening his hips and running on the snap. But the way the Vikings' scheme operates has asked him to do just that plenty of times -- most notable, on Cecil Shorts' 39-yard touchdown catch that gave Jacksonville a late lead in the opener.
Frazier acknowledged after Sunday's game the Vikings adjusted to have Cook press more often in similar situations. He ended up drawing offensive pass interference penalty against Davis by pressing in Cover-2 and later broke up a slant for Davis in press-man.
None of which is to criticize Williams' philosophy, which has combined with upgraded personnel -- Cook's return from his legal issues, Antoine Winfield's return from injury, the additions of safety Harrison Smith and No.3 cornerback Josh Robinson through the draft -- to help the Vikings rise from No. 26 in pass defense last season to No. 10.
"Playing press, it definitely helps a lot in the quick passing game," Cook said. "But if you're playing off and you can get a good read and you drive on the upfield shoulder, you can make plenty of plays."
At Washington, the Vikings also had to account for zone-read plays based off the threat of Griffin's running ability, which he displayed on a 76-yard touchdown run that all but sealed the decision.
Cook might have kept Griffin from getting to the sideline if he hadn't been locked in press-man coverage on Redskins receiver Joshua Morgan.
"You can press," Williams said. "But again, that means someone else is not focused on that extra gap in terms of the run game, and when you play man coverage against the option, it's not a good thing to do. They have you in a little bit of a quandary there, in terms of guessing in the next play that's coming up."
Some weeks, the Vikings' entire disguise package may be based on the look shown by their corners. The sooner a quarterback diagnoses the coverage, the sooner he knows where to go with the ball and where the voids should open if it's a zone.
Adjustments can be made within every scheme, though, and NFL scouts have looked at Cook as a fit for press-and-sink tenets of the Cover-2 since he came out as a second-round draft pick (34th overall) from Virginia in 2010.
He has rare size and length (32½-inch arms) for a position the Vikings' scheme also asks to contribute heavily in run support -- an area in which Cook has shown substantial improvement by being more aggressive.
After playing in only six games each of his first two seasons because of injuries and off-field issues, Cook is beginning to show signs of the player he can become. Among other things, he leads the Vikings with 11 passes defended.
It's just worth wondering if there are more opportunities to let him play the way he's built to.
"Sometimes we do (press). Sometimes we don't," Cook said. "We can play inverted Cover-2 and the safety's down in the flat, I'm playing a half. We can play soft 2, where I'm reading the inside receiver and trying to get a break. If he breaks on the outside-breaking route, I can drive and go for the inside.
"We have a lot of different stuff like that. But I'm sure every team in the NFL has that. It's just a changeup so people can't always get a key on what you're doing."