MANKATO – The 2017 Vikings have had nine weeks of OTAs, a three-day minicamp and five days of training camp. Yet they’ve had only three practices for a total of six hours to work on a staple technique that helped them rank third defensively a year ago.
Per offseason player safety rules under the collective bargaining agreement, teams can’t practice bump-and-run press coverage until Day 3 of training camp. And that’s not an ideal rule for young cornerbacks in a Mike Zimmer-coached defense.
“For us, we like to play bump-and-run,” said Zimmer, whose team returns to practice Wednesday after a day off. “So it’s hard.”
Saturday was the first time the Vikings were able to use bump-and-run coverage since the season finale against the Bears back on New Year’s Day.
“The first day is always pretty rusty,” cornerback Jabari Price said. “Myself, I hadn’t done bump-and-run in a practice or a game since the preseason last August, when I tore my knee up. I wish they’d change that rule. I think it would help guys get better.”
But the CBA doesn’t allow contact during offseason practices. Although the same rule applies at the line of scrimmage, there is ample contact that’s natural and unavoidable for competitive 300-pounders moving at anything but a walk-through pace.
Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards smiled when he heard a reporter mention that offseason press coverage by defensive backs wouldn’t reach the level of contact that’s commonplace on the line of scrimmage.
“I agree with that,” he said. “But that’s not what came out of the CBA. I don’t make the rules. I know what I would like to do, but we have to follow the rules. It’s tough when we press as much as we do and we don’t get a chance to work on that during the offseason.”
Despite their preference to change the rule, the Vikings still excel in the press coverage techniques that Zimmer teaches. Of course, it helps that his top four corners include three former first-rounders (Terence Newman, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes) and a former second-rounder (Mackensie Alexander).
“You deal with the hand you’re dealt,” Edwards said, “but it’s also good for us because we can work on certain things offenses do that require us to play ‘off’ coverage,” where corners line up farther away from the line of scrimmage.
“Playing ‘off’ coverage isn’t something we do a lot in-season,” Price said. “So in some ways, I like the rule, and in some ways I hate it, too.”
Defensive backs aren’t the only ones who have to readjust to press coverage once the third day of training camp arrives. For nearly eight months, receivers haven’t had to fight through it, and quarterbacks haven’t had to account for it while working on timing with receivers.
“I’m not going to say it’s a good rule,” Vikings receiver Jarius Wright said, “but I think it’s a pretty decent rule just for the simple fact that sometimes pressing players in the offseason can injure players. Yeah, it can be bad for receivers who need to learn how to play against press coverage. But receivers are always working on moves that help them get off the line.”
Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs said he takes it upon himself to work on press coverage situations on his own time.
“Because you don’t see press coverage in the offseason practices, guys should be working out on their own with other guys, trying to do a lot of press coverage,” Diggs said. “You should be working some with your helmet and your shoulder pads on. You don’t want to lose that feel when you’re running.”
Players typically find time to work out on their own with friends who also are NFL players.
“I spent a lot of time in Houston,” Diggs said. “Kevin Johnson, a friend of mine, is a cornerback for the Texans. He’s a very quick guy. We get after it when we work out.”
Zimmer said some NFL coaches have talked about how they’d like to loosen the offseason press coverage rule. But …
“When you go to those [league] meetings, you talk about a lot,” he said. “The CBA is what it is and it’s going to be collectively bargained to whatever the players and the owners decide.”