Given time to reflect on the uniqueness of how things ended Sunday, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier didn’t budge from his initial reaction to a 26-26 stalemate with the Green Bay Packers.
“It was bittersweet in a lot of ways,” he said Monday.
Even though his team squandered a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter, Frazier mostly tried to accentuate the positives, and the collective performance of a trio of young players belonged prominently on that list.
Audie Cole’s impressive debut as the starter at middle linebacker — combined with strong outings by first-round draft picks Cordarrelle Patterson and Xavier Rhodes — headlined the Vikings’ performance on a day that ended in ambiguity.
Cole produced a game-high 13 tackles with one sack, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hits.
Patterson finished with season highs in catches (eight) and receiving yards (54). He also returned a kickoff 57 yards.
Rhodes recorded a career-high four pass breakups before suffering a concussion in the fourth quarter.
In his Monday news conference, Frazier noted the development of all three players and indicated that all three, in different ways, could see added responsibility in their roles.
The case for Cole
Cole made his first NFL start in place of Erin Henderson, who is dealing with a personal issue. Henderson returned to Winter Park on Monday, but Frazier did not have an immediate update on his status.
Though he missed a few tackles, Cole flashed with his ability to pressure the quarterback. Frazier acknowledged that Cole’s performance will force his staff to consider changes.
“I tell you, he did a really good job for us,” Frazier said. “He did some things to make you take a hard look at where we are.”
Their options include keeping Cole as the starter and moving Henderson to his natural position on the outside. Or keep Henderson in the middle and play Cole outside.
“We’ll probably talk about what’s the best scenario to get the best 11 on the field,” Frazier said. “We’ll have to determine if Audie will be one of those 11 or how we’ll do it. It’s hard for me to answer that right now.”
The case for Patterson
Patterson played only 11 offensive snaps total in the first two games this season. He was targeted on 11 passes Sunday. That underscores the degree to which his role has evolved in recent weeks.
Frazier said recently that the coaching staff brought Patterson along as quickly as possible. He has been targeted a team-high 20 times the past two games and he’s replaced Jerome Simpson as the starter.
“I don’t think the light bulb all of a sudden went on,” Frazier said. “I just think he’s been growing all along. The situation with Jerome [drunken-driving charges] thrust him into a different role. And we were doing this all along, just increasing what we were doing with him. Now he’s a starter, and he’s really embraced that opportunity. And we’re continuing to try and find ways to get him the ball.”
They threw him several deep passes Sunday — he dropped two, the second on a tipped ball in the end zone in overtime. More important, coaches are using Patterson in different spots now rather than keeping him strictly at one receiver position.
“He wasn’t getting that many snaps early on and when he was, people were like, ‘84 is in the game,’ ” Frazier said. “We said, ‘Oh boy, this is not good.’ So as time as gone on we’ve moved him around to different spots. But the intent is to get him the ball in space as often as we can and see if he can make plays.”
The case for Rhodes
Rhodes broke up a pass in the end zone in the first quarter. He had pass breakups on back-to-back plays in the second quarter. His four total pass breakups increased his team lead to 15.
“We put him in a lot of man coverage,” Frazier said. “We felt like that was the best approach against their offense and he stood up. Because we put him in man, they tried to attack him with him being a rookie, which other people do as well, but he played with a lot of confidence and played well.”
Rhodes must pass NFL concussion protocol this week to be eligible to play Sunday against the Chicago Bears. When he returns, Frazier said he would like to allow Rhodes to play more man coverage the final part of the season.
Rhodes is more comfortable playing man-to-man than zone because he can use his size (6-1, 210 pounds) and strength to be physical with receivers at the line.
“That’s what he does best, rolling up in press coverage,” Frazier said.