Finally, Mike Zimmer should get an opportunity to evaluate most of his safety options, even if the early favorite remains out.
No other position has been hit as hard by injuries as the defensive backfield. Cornerbacks Josh Robinson, Captain Munnerlyn and Marcus Sherels have all dealt with hamstring injuries that caused them to miss time. The safeties have been dealing with a variety of maladies that have been hindering the coaching staff from getting a true evaluation at a position that has one starting spot and a few backup roster spots at stake.
The frustration with the ongoing storyline of injuries at the position seems to be growing.
“It’s difficult because guys aren’t practicing as much. In the ballgame the other night, we had three safeties that were left playing,” Zimmer said Monday before the Vikings had a day off.
But there is good news. Harrison Smith, perhaps the Vikings’ best defensive player last year, has been available throughout camp, and Kurt Coleman, who has a chance to earn a starting spot or rotational role opposite Smith, also made the start in Friday’s preseason opener.
But Zimmer didn’t want to test Smith or any of the other starters too much in the opener. Rookie Antone Exum was tried extensively, playing in 90 percent of the defensive snaps, and Brandan Bishop, one of the last safeties on the depth chart, played in 55 percent of the snaps. Coleman played in 45 percent, while Smith was tapped for only seven snaps on the first two series before getting the rest of the night off.
“(Exum) did a good job, does a good job communicating. There are some things I think from that being his first game out there that he was surprised by,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “The communication is the biggest part for a young guy because you get so many things formationally from the other offense that we probably didn’t practice going into that game. Our concern was more with us and what we’re doing as opposed to what they were trying to do offensively.”
Fortunately for the Vikings, things in the training room appear to be pivoting. All safeties but Robert Blanton (hamstring) are expected to return Saturday night against the Arizona Cardinals.
“We’ll sit down and we’ll try to get a much better evaluation of the guys we think we need more of on tape,” Zimmer said. “This will be a good test. (The Cardinals) play with four wides and they throw the ball around pretty good.”
Jamarca Sanford, a starter for the Vikings the last three years, has a lot to prove coming off a back injury. Chris Crocker, a starter for Zimmer in Cincinnati and acquired last week, is deemed in good enough shape to see action, too, and he may end up starting next to Smith as the starting defense is expected to see more action.
“He’s very smart. He understands the system. He can help everybody else,” Zimmer said of Crocker. “It’s hurting Blanton that he’s not out there, but the other guys get a chance to go. When Blanton gets back, he’s going to have to get heavy into the mix so we can really evaluate him.”
Zimmer said Crocker’s knowledge of his defense is extensive, and Crocker is confident in his ability to help the younger defensive backs with their assignments, even Smith.
“Most of the things he can tell them almost as well as I can. He thinks he can all the time, but he can’t,” Zimmer joked. “But, no, he’s really good. He’s really good with the younger players. He was really good with Reggie Nelson, who we had next to him in Cincinnati. Part of it, too, is figuring out whoever is back there, how to use them.”
The new defense has featured some interesting looks on occasion in camp. At times, there have been one safety and three cornerbacks. Other times, three safeties and one cornerback. The idea is that Zimmer wants to keep offenses guessing with versatile defensive backs.
Those different looks won’t be featured much in the preseason, as coaches like to save the surprises for regular-season film.
“We weren’t really limited in any of the packages that we wanted to run. We had stuff that we didn’t run, but we weren’t limited in the fact that we had three safeties.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of 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.
Veteran safety Chris Crocker brings more value to Mike Zimmer’s defense than just his athletic…