The Minnesota Vikings tied for the league lead last season in sacks, so opposing quarterbacks should’ve been flustered into forcing plenty of bad throws that the secondary could take the other way.
But rarely did that happen against this depleted group of defensive backs. The Vikings matched the NFL’s worst interception total in 2011.
“I don’t know the exact number we had last year,” cornerback Antoine Winfield said.
“That’s it?” Winfield said, shaking his head. “That’s pretty low.”
Only seven came from the secondary. All-Pro defensive end Jared Allen, who was busy applying all that pressure with his 22 sacks, had an interception in the season opener.
“We had a lot of opportunities last year. We just didn’t catch ’em,” said Winfield, who appeared in only five games because of a strained neck and then a broken collarbone. “That’s the main thing. You’ll have chances. Just got to come up with the ball.”
Defending the pass has more or less been a decades-long problem for the Vikings, who have ranked 26th or worse in the NFL in yards passing allowed in six of the past 10 seasons. In touchdowns given up through the air, they’ve ranked 21st or lower in the league in six of the past 10 years.
In 2011, no NFL team surrendered more than the 34 passing scores against them, 25 of which came during a nine-game streak without a single interception by the Vikings over the period from Oct. 16 through Dec. 18.
This is an area that must be improved if the Vikings (29th in the preseason AP Pro32 rankings) are going to put that 3-13 record of last season in the past, particularly in this increasingly pass-driven league. They’re banking on an influx of new players and the return of others who missed time last season to make this more of a formidable group.
At safety, rookie Harrison Smith — drafted late in the first round out of Notre Dame — is on track to start next to second-year player Mistral Raymond, a sixth-round draft pick who started five games down the stretch in 2011. Both Smith and Raymond showed some signs of ability in Friday’s exhibition game against Buffalo.
Winfield is 35, but he’s still one of the best tacklers in the NFL for his size. Whenever there are more than two wide receivers on the field, he’ll move inside to the slot to better maximize his skills and keep him from being overexposed to speedier, bigger opponents.
That’s where Chris Cook comes in. He played in only six games last year before being arrested on a felony domestic assault charge. Now acquitted, Cook has returned this year trying to reward the Vikings for their patience with him.
“He’s coming along the way we think he should, and we’re just waiting to see how high that ceiling is,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said.
Veterans Chris Carr and Zack Bowman were signed as free agents for depth at cornerback, and Marcus Sherels — the primary punt returner last season — is also in the mix.
But the player who has caught the most eyes at that position is rookie Josh Robinson, the third-round draft pick from Central Florida who ran the fastest recorded time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine earlier this year at 4.33 seconds.
“We have high hopes for him,” coach Leslie Frazier said. “We hope he is going to be a major factor in our secondary this season.”
Robinson, slowed by an injury to one of his hamstrings at the beginning of training camp, could be the nickel back this year. He is well aware of the interception deficit the Vikings had before his arrival.
“Just trying to get the ball and cash in. That’s what we always say, ‘We’ve got to cash in.’ That’s something a lot of emphasis has been put on,” Robinson said.
He has the positive attitude part down, too.
“Just always competing and you’ll be in the right spot and it’ll land right in your lap,” Robinson said.
That’s what happened to linebacker Audie Cole on Friday. He picked off two — yes, two — passes and returned them for touchdowns on consecutive plays from scrimmage against the Bills.
Cole is only a rookie, a seventh-round draft pick from North Carolina State, but he seemed to be showing the rest of the defense in that otherwise-meaningless preseason action what needs to happen this year for this team to succeed.
“Those turnovers come in bunches and once you get a few, they’ll continue to come,” Frazier said.