Vikings defensive players ready for change in scheme

Jamarca Sanford and the rest of the Vikings defense will likely have a lot of changes to learn before next season.

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Spor

Upon hearing Leslie Frazier was fired last week, Minnesota Vikings safety Jamarca Sanford knew more changes are likely inevitable.

A defense that allowed the most points and second-most yards in the NFL this season ultimately led to a 5-10-1 record and Frazier being dismissed as coach after three-plus seasons. Frazier’s preferred Cover 2 defensive scheme had taken many hits from critics along the way.

Frazier helped groom Sanford into an eventual starting safety for Minnesota in the Cover 2. Sanford knows the chances of a philosophical change are likely and something he can support, with one key caveat.

"It depends on what the new coach, how he looks at us overall," Sanford said last week about potential defensive changes. "How he wants to put different players in different positions, however he looks at. Whether he goes to a 3-4 or a 4-3, I’m all for it as long as I’m a part of it."

Sanford still believes in the Cover 2 system that has seen its proponents among NFL coaches dwindle in recent years. The intelligence and accuracy of quarterbacks have led to a possible outdated system that once thrived with zone coverage in the secondary with the two safeties splitting the field and a front four in the standard 4-3 alignment pressuring quarterbacks.

With Frazier gone, the defensive staple for the Vikings during his tenure could well be gone with him. The Cover 2 has been the core defensive philosophy for Minnesota since 2006 when Mike Tomlin was hired by Brad Childress to be the team’s defensive coordinator. After Tomlin left to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007, Frazier was named the defensive coordinator and continued the Cover 2.

"I feel like we kind of need a change around here because I’ve been here for five years and we’ve been running the same thing," Sanford said. "Not saying it didn’t work, but a change can be for the good."

Vikings coach candidates

Defensive end Brian Robison agreed.

"Any type of change can be good," Robison said. "It’s just one of those deals that, it’s all a matter of how you embrace it. If you go out there with a positive mindset, and make the best of it, it can always be a good thing."

General manager Rick Spielman has included coaching candidates with defensive backgrounds in his search, and has reportedly conducted interviews with defensive coordinators in Cincinnati’s Mike Zimmer, Arizona’s Todd Bowles, Cleveland’s Ray Horton and Seattle’s Dan Quinn. With each, a change in philosophy likely would be included.

Spielman said learning about new possibilities on defense would be part of his coaching search.

"We’ll look at all that," Spielman said last week. "It will be interesting when you talk to a lot of these coaches, whether it’s a 3-4 or a 4-3, some teams run a 4-3 with a hybrid 3-4. There are so many different things going out there. I am very excited about the process, just to learn and to talk to a lot of different people to see their philosophies."

The Vikings’ Cover 2 slipped since Frazier became the head coach. Tomlin coached Minnesota to the league’s No. 8 defense and the team was third in turnovers in 2006. In three of Frazier’s four seasons as Vikings’ coordinator, the team was top-eight in total defense. Turnovers were never a big part — ranking inside the top 20 just once under Tomlin and Frazier, but the real issues crept up the past three seasons.

Fred Pagac’s one year as coordinator saw Minnesota finish 21st in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed, while tied for last in interceptions and allowing a 107.6 rating to opposing quarterbacks. Alan Williams, another Cover 2 disciple, was brought in as the defensive coordinator. The Vikings ranked 16th last year in total defense before falling to 31st this season and allowing the league’s highest point total.

"You know, we’re all in this together, so I think we all need to bear it on our shoulders, regardless of whether it’s a coach, whether it’s a player," Robison said. "Coaches give us the game plan; players have got to execute it. So it’s one of those deals where, if you don’t want to lose those close games, you’ve got to make the plays down the stretch that you have to make in order to win them."

Minnesota, of course, surrendered the lead in the final minute five times this season.

"Two-minute; two-minute," safety Harrison Smith said of what needs to change on defense. "Yeah, that’s it. That’s how you win. If you’re going to lose games in the NFL, it’s two-minute, all the way."

Sanford hopes he’s a part of the next system and believes the Vikings have the defensive talent to play any scheme. Changes in personnel are coming too, with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams, Everson Griffen, Chris Cook and others set to be free agents.

Maybe a shakeup, coaching-wise and scheme-wise, is just what Minnesota needs right now.

"Just being on the same coaching staff, you get kind of comfortable because the coaches know you," Sanford said. "And being with a new coaching staff is like you got to come in and prove yourself again. So I look forward to it. Every year I come in I’m trying to prove myself no matter who the coach is. I’m going to approach this offseason the same way.

"It’s going to bring out the best in each and every player in here, to come back next year ready to play because nothing’s set in stone. The depth chart is going to be in sand, so you got to come in and prove to the coaches that you the right guy for their scheme and you’re ready to go."

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