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Updated: August 28th, 2013 4:08pm
Zulgad: Forget passing woes, Vikings' real issue might be in secondary

Zulgad: Forget passing woes, Vikings' real issue might be in secondary

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

No matter how feeble the Minnesota Vikings' first-team offense looked at times this preseason, the reality is that things won't be that bad come the Sept. 8 regular-season opener in Detroit.

Why? It's simple.

Adrian Peterson was on the field for only two snaps in games that didn't matter. When the Vikings face the Lions, everyone knows the NFL's best running back will be fed the football on a consistent basis.

That won't solve the issues that Christian Ponder and the passing game are having, but it will go a long way toward covering up any stink that might come from that unit.

The Vikings, however, don't have the luxury of having such a fallback when it comes to their cornerbacks, and that's a scary thought in a league that has several quarterbacks who can zip the ball all over the place.

Sunday night's loss at San Francisco provided a reminder of just how fragile things might be for a position group that no longer has veteran Antoine Winfield to rely on.

Starting right corner Chris Cook left the game before the first-team defense was done for the evening because of a groin injury. Coach Leslie Frazier said that Cook will be fine, but that's not the point.

The concern is that, once again, Cook could not stay on the field.

An early second-round draft pick in 2010, Cook is expected to be a key member of the secondary but he has yet to prove he can remain healthy.

Cook, who battled injuries in 2010 and 2012 and missed much of 2011 because of legal troubles, hasn't played in more than 10 games in a regular season since entering the league.

Josh Robinson, a third-round pick in 2012, has been getting reps with the top unit at the left corner and then sliding inside in the nickel. That is the place where Winfield proved to be so effective last season.

Robinson, though, is only entering his second year and just starting regularly at the corner will be a big responsibility. Add in the fact he's playing inside in the nickel, a definite adjustment from the normal cornerback spot, and you have a young player with a lot on his plate.

That was apparent during the 49ers' first touchdown drive in the opening quarter Sunday, when Robinson was beaten on three pass plays. Two of them went for first downs and the third resulted in a touchdown from Colin Kaepernick to Quinton Patton. It also was disturbing that Kaepernick was 6 for 6 on that drive.

Life doesn't figure to get any easier for Robinson in the opening two weeks of the season when the Vikings face a Lions passing attack that is led by Matthew Stafford and then goes against Jay Cutler and the Bears.

So who will Stafford, Cutler and every other quarterback the Vikings face early in the season try to pick on?

It could be Robinson, or it could be first-round pick Xavier Rhodes, who has battled hamstring issues in training camp and will be learning on the job. Rhodes should be a fine player in time, but the step up from Florida State to the NFL is going to be a big one and early struggles are to be expected.

Perhaps the scariest thing is what happens if Cook, Robinson or Rhodes suffers an injury?

Right now the Vikings have A.J. Jefferson, Bobby Felder, Marcus Sherels and Brandon Burton behind Cook, Robinson and Rhodes on the depth chart.

Jefferson, who was acquired just before last season from Arizona, had seven starts in 15 regular-season appearances a year ago and also was a starter in the playoff game at Green Bay when the Vikings opened in the nickel defense.

How would he do if forced into a regular role? The Vikings might just find out.

Felder has never played in an NFL game; Sherels is best used as a punter returner; and Brandon Burton has 14 games of NFL experience but primarily has been employed on special teams.

Not all of these corners are guaranteed to make the final roster, which will be cut to 53 on Saturday.

Unlike some positions, cornerbacks aren't easy to find, so the Vikings can't simply count on looking to the waiver wire to build quality depth once other teams make their cuts.

What the Vikings have come this weekend is probably what they are going to have to open the season.

In reality, that might be a bigger issue than dealing with a struggling passing game that Peterson can make us all forget because of his ability to run the ball.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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