EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — When the Minnesota Vikings look back and talk about the turning point to their season, veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield’s speech to the entire team following the Week 2 loss to the Indianapolis Colts is credited with changing the mentality and setting a tone.
There was a meeting before the meeting in which Winfield spoke that also is proving beneficial to the team’s turnaround following the tide-changing loss.
New defensive coordinator Alan Williams called his defensive leaders into a meeting to talk about the defensive schemes and strategies used. Williams was receptive to hearing the veteran defensive players’ opinion on what had transpired the first few weeks and gained the respect of his defense by using their input and being open to the ideas.
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“We realized that he really was a coach who was going to work with his players and do whatever it takes to win ballgames,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “It’s huge. Just having a guy like Alan that really respects his players, really wants to make his guys feel comfortable, a lot like (coach Leslie) Frazier did on defense. When you have that kind of confidence in a coach, knowing that he has that type of confidence in his players, it really makes you want to play better for him.”
The result has been a defensive renaissance that has Minnesota playing as one of the league’s top defenses the past three weeks. The Vikings are ranked sixth in the league in fewest points allowed, surrendering an average of 15.8 points-per-game. Minnesota’s defense is seventh in fewest yards allowed (304.2 per), sixth against the run (78.6 yards-per-game) and 14th against the pass (225.6 per). But the defense has been even tougher the past three weeks, giving up a total of 33 points in those games and just three touchdowns over the opponents’ last 34 possessions.
So, what did players such as Robison, Winfield, Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Chad Greenway share with Williams during the meeting to create the change?
“It was really kind of a collective group of us on defense was (that) in certain situations we weren’t comfortable running maybe some certain pressures, or some certain coverages and different situations, things like that,” Robison said. “So we kind of relayed to him, ‘In this situation, we don’t feel like that’s what’s good for our DBs,’ and things like that. He’s done a really good job of, still, every once in a while, putting those coverages he wants to run into the mix, but at the same time, also allowing us to relay to him that, ‘Hey, it’s something that we don’t want to run this coverage because we don’t feel comfortable doing it.’ Then he makes the change with the call. Egos aren’t getting in the way and we’re really working well together right now.”
Williams has differed a bit in some schemes the defense was used to when Frazier was the team’s defensive coordinator, but has brought many of the same principles. The Vikings have been comfortable with the recent philosophies, a direct reflect on bringing in a coordinator similar to Frazier.
Simplifying the approach has allowed the defensive players to react and play hard instead of thinking too much. Williams has said repeatedly he wants players to focus on running to the ball and not getting caught up in schemes and the execution of the calls has improved.
On Sunday, the Tennessee Titans entered the fourth quarter with just 96 total yards of offense and Minnesota led 23-0. A week earlier, the explosive Detroit Lions’ offense was held without a touchdown until its second-to-last possession.
Frazier said part of the transition is Williams just getting a better feel for the players and their strengths and weaknesses.
“He does a good job of communicating to our players about what their expectations are, at every position, and how each guy fits into what we’re trying to get done,” Frazier said. “And to see that collaboration between he, along with our defensive staff and our players, it’s shown on the football field. They’re playing with great energy. You can see the players, our guys, are playing with confidence, they’re in the spots they should be.”
Williams’ communication was a key aspect in his hiring. A little humility has helped too.
“His ability to be able to listen to what the players have to say, and not always feel like he has to be right, I mean that’s a good quality to have,” Frazier said. “And he’s done a good job of listening to some of their suggestions, and incorporating some of them, along with being able to say no when he needs to say no.”
Robison said the coaches and players aren’t letting egos get in the way of doing what’s best for the team’s success. Robison said Williams’ openness with the veteran leaders is unique.
“Normally, you don’t have coaches calling your leaders together as far as just on the defensive side or just on the offensive side to really kind of figure out what they’re thinking and things like that,” Robison said. “Normally, it’s call them together and tell them, ‘Hey, this is what needs to be done,’ instead of saying, ‘Hey, what are you guys thinking?’ To hear that from him just kind of boosts your confidence a little bit.”