Maybe the football gods were trying to tell us something this morning when they aired the Vikings-Packers MNF game from November 6, 2000; the game where Brett Favre heaved a pass down the field that was seemingly broken up, but miraculously hauled in by a falling Antonio Freeman. If you need to jog your memory, here’s the play:
His catch sealed an overtime victory for the Packers and stands as one of the worst examples of secondary play by any Vikings team. More than that, it’s a reminder that the Vikings have been a historically sub par defense against the pass — most notably in the past 20 years. Remember when Josh McCown (THAT Josh McCown) knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs in 2003? Remember the Vikings’ 31st-ranked pass defense in 2013?
Things are looking up in Mike Zimmer’s current secondary, though. Take last season for example; the unit improved to 7th-best pass defense in the league, allowing just under 225 yards per game. Their quick turnaround can be attributed to Zimmer’s scheme and the improved play of two key players — cornerback Xavier Rhodes and free safety Harrison Smith.
Rhodes, in his second season and first year under Zimmer, vaulted himself into the conversation as one of the league’s top-10 corners. He truly “took off” in the final half of the season, shutting down receivers like Calvin Johsnon, Eric Decker, and Alshon Jeffery. Below, Ian Wharton broke down Rhodes’ excellent season by route:
— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) June 16, 2015
Smith was equally, if not more impressive than Rhodes in 2014. He finished the year with five interceptions, 92 tackles, and three sacks, cementing himself as the team’s franchise safety for years to come. The Vikings rewarded his play by picking up Smith’s fifth-year option this offseason and will look to pair him with a suitable strong safety in 2015. But who will that be?
Earlier today, the Vikings released Taylor Mays, who played under Zimmer in Cincinnati and was expected to thrive in a familiar system. As Zimmer stated after today’s minicamp practice, “it wasn’t working out”, and Minnesota released the under performing Mays. The move leaves the team with five safeties, including Robert Blanton, Antone Exum, Anthony Harris, and Andrew Sendejo.
As of now, Blanton is the incumbent starter and heads into the preseason as the favorite to win the job. However, Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune reported that Blanton’s status in the secondary isn’t as concrete as practice reps would lead one to believe:
Zimmer said not to read too much into Blanton being with the ones this spring. Said the safety position will be decided in preseason.
— Matt Vensel (@mattvensel) June 16, 2015
If that’s the case, Blanton will face stiff competition from the three contenders — Exum, Sendejo, and Harris. Exum, entering his second season in the league, is out to prove he can contribute on more than just special teams. The 2014 sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech has the size, coverage skills, and run support ability to line up next to Smith, but after playing just 16 snaps from scrimmage last year, will need to have a strong camp to prove he’s capable.
Sendejo, who took Blanton’s starting spot late last year, is a lackluster tackler, but knows the defense and can step in immediately. If Exum does come out strong in July and August, Sendejo may be relegated to special teams, where he’s found the most success in his NFL career. And finally, Harris, an undrafted free agent out of Virginia. Harris has the highest hill to climb as a player recovering from an injury and as a fresh face, but will be given the opportunity to compete in training camp.