EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — A few lockers away, Minnesota Vikings third-year cornerback Josh Robinson has the player and the commiserating voice he so badly needed last season.
Robinson can look to Captain Munnerlyn, the veteran cornerback signed by Minnesota in the offseason to ostensibly take Robinson’s starting job — and perhaps save his career.
Munnerlyn was added to give the Vikings a trusted slot cornerback and fill the role that former coaches felt like Robinson should have been able to handle last season. No one appreciated Munnerlyn’s addition more than the guy he would be replacing.
And Munnerlyn knew just what Robinson was feeling.
"It’s very tough," Munnerlyn said. "Being an inside guy, I always joke with the guys all the time, say inside corners should get paid way more than outside because inside the (wide receiver) can go anywhere. Those guys go anywhere. It’s kind of tough to play those guys."
Robinson would be freed from his inside responsibilities. He could focus on handling outside receivers just like he did at Central Florida before he was a third-round draft pick by Minnesota. New Vikings coach Mike Zimmer taught Robinson some different techniques and strategies.
As a result, Robinson’s confidence started to reappear.
Zimmer, Munnerlyn and a comfortable Robinson have helped transform Minnesota’s pass defense. Heading into Sunday’s game at Chicago, the Vikings have allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards (213.6 per game) in the league. Minnesota is tied for third with 30 sacks as a team.
Robinson’s two interceptions — after going without an interception last year — have boosted the Vikings’ total to eight interceptions, all coming from the secondary. Minnesota defensive backs accounted for just six interceptions last season.
Burned by the decision to release Antoine Winfield, the Vikings’ secondary never recovered last season.
Robinson never adapted to learn how to defend inside. The defensive backfield didn’t have veteran leadership, and Minnesota ended up allowing the second-most passing yards in the NFL.
From a scheme change to coaching, a veteran addition and a move back outside for Robinson, it’s all made a difference for the Vikings.
"Zim with his defensive scheme is excellent, and then the guys up front getting pressure on quarterbacks," Robinson said. "It’s just everybody starting to work together and that’s what’s really helping everyone look great as a secondary, as a front and as a linebacker corps."
Robinson’s improvement has mirrored that of the secondary.
Even early on with Zimmer and the new coaching staff, Robinson continued to deal with nagging injuries. His place in the secondary order even looked tenuous at times because of the injuries.
Zimmer said he wasn’t being calculating when he referred to Robinson as "the other guy" this year when he had a hamstring injury.
"I think he’s starting to play with more confidence," Zimmer said. "He’s got the athletic ability, so now he’s starting to play with more confidence. He’s becoming, I believe, tougher as a football player and not just an athlete. All those things are good."
Robinson has developed into the Vikings’ steadiest cornerback this season. Last season Robinson was often a target of Pro Football Focus, the website which analyzes and grades NFL players, when he was rated 99th out of 110 cornerbacks in the NFL. According to the site, he allowed a league-high 84.8-percent completion rate on passes in his direction and the fourth-highest quarterback rating at 127.0.
This season, Pro Football Focus grades Robinson as the league’s 28th-best cornerback with a 50-percent completion rate (seventh lowest) and 65.2 quarterback rating (12th lowest).
Robinson said he heard plenty about Pro Football Focus last season and won’t pay attention now that his numbers have improved. But Robinson appreciates where he is at and the changes that have happened with the additions of Zimmer and Munnerlyn.
"After having a tough year, I do appreciate playing well again and I try to make sure I continue to work on my craft, make sure I continue to try and improve so it never happens again," Robinson said.
Robinson said the biggest assistance from Zimmer has been in press coverage and learning to be more physical and hands-on with receivers. The point of emphasis continues to show.
"I felt like (Wednesday) he had his best day with getting the technique down, the best I’ve seen him since I’ve been here," Zimmer said. "The way we do it, if we do it right, it’s pretty easy what we’re asking them to do. It’s not easy because it’s a hard job, but once you get the technique down, hopefully he’ll continue to go along with his technique where he’s at right now."