Harrison Smith (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY)
The Vikings have struggled on defense and injuries in the secondary might be one of the biggest reasons. Two key starters, Chris Cook and Harrison Smith, have played in only about half the snaps because of injuries after starting the season without missing a snap. The game-by-game snap percentages in the secondary show the devastation injuries have had.
Nothing says “Read me!” like the inclusion that math skills will be involved. Most writers became writers because they struggled with math. But, if your writing deals with sports, you deal with numbers.
The Vikings have been the butt of jokes among the NFL national talking heads. Have they struggled defensively? No question. But when one takes a legitimate look at what the secondary has gone through this season, it can go a long way to explaining why the Vikings of 2013 don’t resemble the Vikings of 2012 in the secondary.
We know you probably don’t enjoy weekend math, but check out these numbers. These are the play percentage numbers in the Vikings secondary. An “X” denotes a player who wasn’t on the active roster in the game being played.
The key to these numbers is where the Vikings were at the beginning of the season and where they are now.
Pencils up. It’s time for the math.
Chris Cook – 100-100-4-X-100-100-X-X-X
Josh Robinson – 100-97-100-97-81-82-92-100-97
Harrison Smith – 100-100-100-100-66-X-X-X-X
Jamarca Sanford – 100-97-68-X-96-99-33-X-X
Xavier Rhodes – 88-60-66-70-46-47-68-77-97
Andrew Sendejo – 0-0-32-53-31-69-91-91-100
Marcus Sherels – 0-0-0-97-20-16-12-75-47
Robert Blanton – 0-0-0-0-0-0-9-51-37
A.J. Jefferson – X-1-10-0-6-X-13-26-3
Shaun Prater – X-X-X-X-X-X-X-0-0
(Note: This list doesn’t include Jacob Lacey, who was active but didn’t take a defensive snap vs. Carolina and was subsequently cut).
What do these play percentage numbers tell us? The four defensive backs the Vikings intended to play virtually every play in a pass-happy NFL were Cook, Robinson, Smith and Sanford.
Cook has effectively missed five games. Of the four games he wasn’t injured, he was on the field for every play. Clearly, he was the leader of the cornerbacks. His absence for five of nine games will likely make his next contract, whether with the Vikings or someone else, an incentive-laden, short-term deal.
Smith, for our money, is the best defensive back the Vikings have. His loss is crucial. He didn’t miss a play before he went down with a foot injury.
Robinson and Rhodes have been the only Vikings secondary players who have seen significant playing time in every game. Two players taken in the first two days of the last two drafts, they have been critical to the secondary considering the injuries. Rhodes is in the running for the team’s rookie of the year because he was drafted to be a long-term starter (as were Sharrif Floyd and Cordarrelle Patterson). Rhodes has been pushed into an expanded role due to injuries, so his apprenticeship is coming by fire.
Sanford was expected to be the primary starter opposite Smith. Between the two of them, they have missed a combined eight games based on playtime percentage.
Sendejo has made himself some money in the last month (well, actually, he signed an extension through 2015 before he became a secondary sub). In the first two games, he never took a snap – by design. But, due to injuries, he not only has been thrust onto the field, but has been depended on the last three games to be an every-down defensive player.
Sherels struggled in Week 3 when pushed into the starting role, but has become a valued depth player and, in the last two weeks, has been on the field a lot, including being the one-on-one matchup on fourth down in the final minute against Washington. He went from punt return specialist to defensive back in a hurry.
When the Vikings had the luxury of sitting down healthy players, Blanton never saw the field other than special teams. The last two games, he’s been in on a little less than half of the defensive snaps. Jefferson has also been promoted from mostly special teams. Prater is on the roster because the guys who were special teams players now have defensive responsibilities.
We apologize for the math that was involved in the explanation, but, if you consider that in a modern NFL that throws at will and runs to keep defenses honest, the Vikings have pressed the reserves into significant action. In many cases, that meant a sudden starting role.
The problems the Vikings have experienced can be reverse-engineered back to one big red flag. They have struggled on defense this season. Why? In part because the players they expected to be the foundation pieces of a secondary that wasn’t viewed as being thick in terms of depth has been pushed to the back end of the roster and beyond. At a time when unprecedented passing is taking place in the NFL, the Vikings have been stretched thin and cut to the bone at the two positions designed to stop the pass.
Blame for the Vikings’ sad start can be placed in many laps. But if one takes a realistic look, when the Vikings were starting the 2013 season, they had an expectation of what players would be lining up in the secondary.
You can only do so much when you’ve been gutted by injuries to those you crossed your fingers would play 16 games. Other injuries and changes at key positions have played a role in the collective results for the Vikings – keeping in mind that, if games were 59 minutes long, the Vikings would be 5-4 and not 2-7.
The pass defense has lacked consistency. Receivers have been wide open. But, after doing the math, even for the most math-challenged of us, we have a smoking gun as to why they haven’t won much.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.