Zulgad: Vikings hoping healthy, retooled secondary is much improved
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. - Leslie Frazier would prefer to avoid recalling what it was like going against the pass-happy offenses in the NFC North last season, but the always cordial Minnesota Vikings coach proved willing to discuss the subject when it was broached on Wednesday.
In fact, Frazier decided to give a specific example of just how challenged the shorthanded Vikings secondary was at one point last season.
"We played a team, I won't mention the team," Frazier said. "One of the secondary coaches called me after the game and said, 'Man, going into the game, we knew if we put this package on the field you could match up, if we did this you couldn't match up. I don't know what you are going to do, but you guys have to address your secondary.'"
There were numerous reasons why the Vikings posted a dismal 3-13 record last season, tying the worst mark in franchise history, and the subpar play in the secondary was a major one of them.
The Vikings finished 26th in the NFL in pass defense, giving up an average of 251.2 yards per game. The Vikings also surrendered 34 touchdowns through the air.
Veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield was limited to only five games because of a strained neck and then a broken collarbone. Chris Cook played in only six games before being arrested on a felony domestic assault charge of which he was later acquitted.
Corner Cedric Griffin, attempting to return after undergoing reconstructive surgery on both knees, struggled and eventually was removed from a starting role.
The Vikings were so shorthanded they had to bring back Benny Sapp in November and ended up making him a starter. Marcus Sherels, who had been signed as a rookie free agent in 2010 and is more of a special team contributor, also started three games.
Said Frazier of the call he received from that opposing coach: "You are in the season so you are limited with your options, so it is a hard thing, especially if you coached defense before. It's not a lot of fun, but I think we have addressed some of those issues this offseason and now if we can keep our guys healthy it should help us to answer some questions when we play opposing offenses."
Indeed, Winfield is back and set to open games at the left corner and move inside in nickel situations. Cook, who will miss Friday's preseason game against San Diego because of a concussion, should be ready to go as the starter at right corner for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Jacksonville.
Veteran Chris Carr was signed as a free agent and is battling third-round pick Josh Robinson to play an outside spot when three corners are on the field. Zack Bowman also was signed as a free agent but that was more for his play on special teams.
The Vikings made a draft-night trade with the Baltimore Ravens to move back into the first round and take Notre Dame's Harrison Smith with the 29th overeall pick.
Mistral Raymond, a sixth-round selection in 2011 who was forced to start the final five games of his rookie season, is likely to earn the starting job opposite Smith.
The depth in the secondary also has been improved.
"I think this is the deepest we've ever been at DB since I've been here," said right end Jared Allen, who joined the Vikings in 2008 and recorded an NFL-leading 22 sacks in 2011.
Frazier can't control injuries, but he has to like what he sees on the depth chart far more than he did a year ago.
"If we can get the right pieces in place, we think that we will have the chance to give people different looks and try to be creative with some of the things that we do," said Frazier, who served as the Vikings' defensive coordinator from 2007 until being promoted to coach after Brad Childress was fired in November 2010.
"The key is keeping those guys on the field that we think can help us, and we have got more depth now than I can remember which bodes well. It should give us a chance to do some things to help our defense be better."
And the Vikings defense certainly needs to be better - especially in the secondary -- if this team is going to improve on last year's record.
This is a franchise that tied for the NFL lead in sacks last season, yet only had eight interceptions. That figure matched the league's lowest interception total in 2011. The team went nine games, from Oct. 16 through Dec. 18, without a pick and Sanford finished with a team-leading two interceptions.
So what types of things can Frazier and new defensive coordinator Alan Williams do to give opponents different looks? Remember, the Vikings must face Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Chicago's Jay Cutler a total of six games this season.
"There are some things we can do personnel-wise if you have the number of defensive backs that we are thinking about keeping, versus where we have been in the past," Frazier said. "Now you can match up a little bit better when people go three, four, and five wide receivers. It eliminates the potential of you having to stay in zone coverage all the time like we've had to do over particularly this past year.
"That will help us, that you can't just go into the game saying 'Well they've only got this many defensive backs, they have to play this particular coverage.' Then the flexibility we have with some of our linebackers that have the ability to cover as well and can blitz off the edge. If we can keep these guys healthy we have a chance to be a little bit more creative with the way that we want to approach opposing offenses."
The Vikings had to like what they saw from Smith as he made his first preseason start in last Friday's win over Buffalo. Sent on a blitz in the first quarter, Smith knocked down a third-down pass from Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Given the fact the Vikings seem to have more confidence in their safeties, that should enable them to do more things with that position, too. It's been a while since that was the case.
"If you know that you have a liability, especially today when you have safeties that have got to cover tight ends, you have a liability there and it's going to get exposed when you play man so you are less likely to play man coverage because you are going to have problems," Frazier said. "It depends how you want to die, slow death or quick death?"
Frazier would prefer to see his defense not experience either type of death in 2012.