Vikings' secondary ready to battle in NFC North
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Coach Leslie Frazier was in the middle of answering questions about the improved defensive versatility and depth the Minnesota Vikings hope for this season when he was asked a question about what it was like to prepare for the elite passing attacks in the NFC North a year ago.
Minnesota's secondary was decimated by injuries and overall poor play in ranking 28th in the league against the pass. Meanwhile, division opponents such as the Green Bay Packers (third in passing last year), and the Detroit Lions (fourth) provided plenty of headaches for Frazier and the Vikings.
Those are memories Frazier has tried to suppress as he focuses on what he thinks will be an improved secondary this season.
"Don't make me go back," Frazier said when asked about last season's secondary woes. "Those are bad memories, man. When you know going into the game that you are limited and you know the people look at the tape and know you are limited.
"We played a team and I won't mention the team. And one of the guys that coaches the secondary for the other team called me after the game. He said, ‘Going into the game if we put this package together we knew you could match up. We knew if you did this you couldn't match up. I don't know what you guys are going to do, but you are going to have to address your secondary.' But you are in the season, so you are limited with your options. It's a hard thing. It's a hard thing, especially if you coached defense before. It's not a lot of fun."
The rest of the division should be in a similar situation with strong passing games led by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and the return from injury of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. But Frazier hopes his defense is more prepared to handle the different looks and multi-receiver sets employed by the rest of the division.
Overhauling the secondary was a priority in the offseason. The Vikings drafted safety Harrison Smith No. 29 overall in April, and he's already made his way into the starting lineup. At cornerback, Antoine Winfield has returned from injury. Chris Cook is back from his legal issues, though he's been slowed for the past few days with a concussion. Minnesota signed Chris Carr and Zack Bowman in free agency and drafted speedy Josh Robinson in the third round.
Finally, Frazier believes he has the pieces to counter the better passing attacks in the league.
"There's some things we can do personnel-wise if we have the number of defensive backs we're thinking of keeping versus where we've been in the past," Frazier said. "Now you can match up a little bit better when people go three and 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, last year. That will help us. You can't just go into games saying, ‘Well, we only have this many defensive backs. We have to play this particular coverage.' And then the flexibility we have with some of our linebackers who have the ability to cover, as well as blitz off the edge. If we can keep these guys healthy, we'll have a chance to be a little bit more creative in the way we want to approach an offense."
Improved play at safety will help combat the likes of the Packers and Lions, who also have excellent tight ends to complement strong receiving corps.
Smith seems to be set as a starter in his rookie season, but Minnesota is still trying out partners next to him. Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond ended last season as the starting safeties. Sanford was the only year-long starter in the entire secondary. Raymond was forced in due to injuries.
Frazier said earlier this week the team will approach things with Raymond as the starter next to Smith but backed off the statement a bit Wednesday, saying Sanford could draw the start in Friday's third preseason game.
Hopefully all the changes can finally put those bad memories of Frazier's in the past.
"If you know that you got a liability, especially today when you have safeties that you ask to cover tight ends, and you know you've got a liability there, it's going to get exposed when you play man," Frazier said. "So, you are less likely to play man coverage because you are going to have problems. It depends on how you want to die, a slow death or a quick death."
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