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Updated: August 13th, 2014 4:57pm
Zulgad: Vikings need secondary to show big improvement

Zulgad: Vikings need secondary to show big improvement

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

As painful as it was watching the Vikings play musical quarterbacks last season, the play from that position was far from the only reason the team went from a playoff berth in 2012 to a 5-10-1 finish in 2013.

The secondary's performance also was painfully bad as evidenced by the fact the Vikings finished second-to-last in the NFL in passing yards surrendered per game (287). That was 3 yards better than what Philadelphia gave up on a weekly basis.

The reasons for this were numerous.

Josh Robinson had no business replacing Antoine Winfield playing inside in the nickel but yet that is exactly what he was asked to do. The Vikings felt it necessary to have Chris Cook prove that drafting him in the second round in 2010 was a mistake. The cornerback obliged and left Minnesota in the offseason with a long list of games missed and no interceptions. (Remember Cook waving his arms frantically late in the Week 2 loss at Chicago before Jay Cutler threw the winning touchdown pass in his direction?)

Xavier Rhodes, a first-round pick in 2013, proved to be raw but talented. Nonetheless, the cornerback only started six of the 13 games in which he played before missing the final three games because of an ankle injury. Harrison Smith, the Vikings' best safety, missed eight games because of a turf toe injury and the other safety spot ended up being a revolving door.

All of this, not to mention the fact the Vikings play in a division that features quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford, helped to cost former NFL cornerback Leslie Frazier his job as head coach.

Enter Mike Zimmer, who like Frazier had been a defensive coordinator and a defensive backs coach before getting a chance to direct a franchise.

Zimmer watched plenty of film this offseason after being hired from the Cincinnati Bengals and he frequently kept a close eye on the defensive backs during offseason workouts. He is doing the same in training camp. Zimmer, though, made it clear Wednesday he isn't going to share his feelings about what went wrong before his arrival.

"I am very careful about judging people on prior, the way things happened prior, because I don't know what they are being told, I don't know what they are being taught, whether it's right or wrong, or good or bad," Zimmer said. "Like I said when I first got here, I like to see with my own eyes and how we do things and how they are catching on with the techniques, how they play together, how they communicate together."

Zimmer got a partial first look at his defensive backs in a game situation in Friday night's preseason win over Oakland at TCF Bank Stadium. The issue is the Vikings were shorthanded at safety. Aside from Robert Blanton still being out, the safety position is expected to be near full strength for Saturday's second preseason game against Arizona at the Bank.

The starters for that game are expected to be Rhodes and Captain Munnerlyn at cornerback and Smith and Chris Crocker at safety. Robinson, who did not play against Oakland because of a hamstring injury that also plagued him during the offseason workouts, likely will be the outside corner with the starters in nickel because Munnerlyn will move inside.

The Rhodes-Munnerlyn combination should be an improvement from last season, given that the former has a year in the league and the latter is a veteran who was signed as a free agent and is qualified to play inside in nickel. Robinson remains a question mark - he was ranked as the fifth-worst cornerback in the NFL by Pro Football Focus as a rookie in 2012 - and could be overtaken by veteran free-agent addition Derek Cox or Shaun Prater.

If you were to rank the projected starters based on confidence level it would go like this: 1) Smith; 2) Munnerlyn; 3) Crocker; 4) Rhodes; 5) Robinson.

The confidence in Crocker is there because, although he was signed after camp opened, he has played in Zimmer's defense long enough to know exactly what is expected and where everyone should be.

Rhodes is the wild card here because there is an expectation that he will turn into a solid NFL player this season based on the fact he was a first-round pick. Zimmer has spent plenty of time during practice in Mankato working with Rhodes on improving his technique. Best case, that means he's simply trying to speed up Rhodes' development process and isn't concerned about what he's seeing.

Zimmer isn't the only veteran coach spending time with the secondary. Jerry Gray, a former NFL corner who made four Pro Bowl appearances in nine seasons, was hired to coach the defensive backs.

Gray spent the past three years as defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans and also coached defensive backs for the Titans (1999-2000), Buffalo Bills (2001-05), Washington Redskins (2006-09) and Seattle Seahawks (2010).

The Tampa-2 scheme the Vikings played under Frazier is long gone and has been replaced by a system that should benefit these defensive backs and put them in a position to make plays.

The Vikings are well aware of the fact that they are a member of a league that wants to see as many points put on the board as possible and is encouraging the game be turned into an aerial show. That means that even if you have good corners and safeties life is going to be tough.

If you don't, then it's going to be impossible to have success.

"So far it's been good, I think we are contesting some balls, which I talked about when I first got here, " Zimmer said. "We seem to be getting better at bump and run than what we were earlier when we first started, but we're moving in the right direction. Obviously, we still have a long way to go."

Zimmer has to hope that progress comes quickly. In Weeks 2 through 5, the Vikings will face Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Rodgers.

"I'm not concerned about it," Zimmer said. "We are going to go out there and challenge the receivers and hopefully we are going to play very, very good. My expectation level is always really high. I know that stretch is a tough stretch but it is what it is."

The problem is that "it" could turn very ugly if Zimmer's secondary doesn't show great improvement early in the season.

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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