In Vikings secondary, rookie has primary role

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 16, 2012 - 7:16 AM

Rookie safety Harrison Smith has helped return some swagger to the Vikings' last line of defense with his good hands and big hits.

Vikings cornerback Chris Cook was reflecting on the first time he met rookie safety Harrison Smith when he paused, looked up and nodded to the elephant in the room. "Hey, white safety!" he yelled toward Smith. He smiled and laughed. He's heard it all before.

"Heck, I've been making white safety jokes forever, too," Smith said. "Whenever we watch film, I'll be like, 'Look at that white safety. Boy, he's trying so hard, isn't he? He's such an overachiever.' Stuff like that."

The stereotype, players say, is that all white defensive backs are naturally slower and less athletic than black defensive backs. Period.

"League-wide, if there's a white defensive back, everybody is like, 'Oh, he has to prove himself,'" Cook said. "That's something that I just feel is league-wide. I could tell Harrison was a tough guy. I mean, no offense, but you can't be a white safety and not be tough."

Tough, fast, athletic, good hands, great ball skills and a better-than-advertised ability to score with the ball in his hands. Smith has displayed them all, regardless of skin color.

"I think we all make jokes about the generalization of players based on color," said Smith, who has returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns this season. "I think it's hilarious to generalize me or anybody that way. It's ridiculous."

Andrew Sendejo, a white Vikings safety who plays special teams, was with the Jets when they had two white safeties -- Jim Leonhard and Eric Smith -- starting.

"There's one standing joke we always heard," Sendejo said. "If you're a white DB and you make a play, the first thing some guys do is yell, 'Hey, Sehorn! Jason Sehorn!' It's just one of those things. All in good fun."

Sehorn was the last full-time white NFL cornerback. He retired in 2003. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who is white, plays an occasional snap at cornerback, but that's it.

"Bottom line," said Cook, "is Harrison Smith is legit."

And because of that and other moves the Vikings made to bolster their talent and depth, the secondary is no longer a primary sense of humiliation on Sunday afternoons.

In fact, the secondary is one of the main reasons the Vikings (7-6) are still in the playoff picture heading into Sunday's game against the Rams (6-6-1) at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Last Sunday, the Vikings beat the Bears 21-14 at home as Smith returned an interception 56 yards for a touchdown and rookie cornerback Josh Robinson added a 44-yard return to set up a 5-yard touchdown drive.

Last year 'was embarrassing'

Now compare that to where the Vikings secondary was a year ago as they prepared to face Drew Brees and the Saints in a Week 15 game at Mall of America Field.

Antoine Winfield and Husain Abdullah were injured. Cook was in exile, fighting felony domestic abuse charges that he eventually was cleared of. And Cedric Griffin already had been benched because he wasn't the same player after blowing out both knees the previous two years.

The starters that afternoon were Marcus Sherels, rookie Brandon Burton and Asher Allen at cornerback and Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond at safety. Bennie Sapp and Griffin also played.

And it wasn't pretty. Brees played just 47 minutes and left as the first player in NFL history to throw for 400 yards (412) and five touchdowns without an interception while completing 80 percent (32 of 40) of his passes in a 42-20 rout.

"I watched it at home," Winfield said. "It was embarrassing."

"But that was just one game," coach Leslie Frazier added. "There were several games where you'd just shake your head because I knew we could be better but you felt handicapped. You felt handcuffed because of what we had in the secondary."

Despite a league-high 50 sacks, the Vikings allowed opponents to post a 107.6 passer rating. The only team in NFL history that did worse: the 2008 Lions team that went 0-16 (110.9).

The Vikings also tied a franchise record for fewest interceptions (eight) while setting an NFL record for consecutive games without an interception (nine).

"I didn't know about the streak, but I have heard things about how bad last year was," Smith said. "I really don't want to know the details though."

During the streak without an interception, opposing quarterbacks completed 72.1 percent of their passes for 2,647 yards and 27 touchdowns between Oct. 9 and Christmas Eve.

Wait. There's more.

Residing in the NFC North was especially painful a year ago. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Chicago's Jay Cutler went 5-0 against the Vikings while completing 72.3 percent of their passes for 1,457 yards, 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and an average passer rating of 125.3.

"Being a guy who has coached DBs and played DB, it was hard," said Frazier, a cornerback on the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl championship team. "But I also understood where we were. The next thing for me was how do we fix it so it never happens again."

The overhaul begins

The key piece came when General Manager Rick Spielman traded back into the first round to select Smith 29th overall. To move up six spots, Spielman gave Baltimore the 35th pick and the 98th pick, a fourth-rounder.

"I've had people from other teams that were below us tell me they would have taken Harrison. No question," Frazier said. "And if we don't get him, everything would be different because the safety crop was really thin. Getting Harrison made a huge difference in the future of our team."

The next key was getting Robinson in the third round with the 66th overall pick. Spielman went into the third round content to take one of three corners: Casey Hayward, who went 62nd overall to Green Bay, Trumaine Johnson, who went 65th to St. Louis, and Robinson, who has two interceptions while establishing himself as a quality nickel back and Winfield's heir apparent.

The final key, which bolstered the secondary's depth, came when Frazier abandoned free-agent acquisitions Chris Carr and Zack Bowman in favor of A.J. Jefferson. Spielman waived Carr and Bowman in the final roster cuts while trading for Jefferson, a longer 6-1, 190-pound corner whom Frazier preferred and the Cardinals were going to cut.

"I was hoping Bowman and Chris Carr would be able to help us," Frazier said. "But after working with them for a while, I thought, 'Yeah, they're pretty good players. They're adequate.' But for what we're trying to do, I just knew we needed something a little more."

Jefferson has started five games since Cook broke his right arm in the Oct. 25 loss to Tampa Bay. The team has been impressed with Jefferson's tight coverage, but wants him to finish plays more consistently.

All these new faces bring a smile to Joe Woods' face. And he couldn't care less what color the faces are that he is working with as Vikings defensive backs coach.

"I think there is sometimes a stereotype because there aren't many [white defensive backs]," Woods said. "But the bottom line is if you can play, you can play. Harrison stepped on the field from Day 1 and made plays with a physical style. That's why people now look at him and the only thing they say is, 'That's what you want in a safety.'"

  • WEEK 15 NOON TODAY AT ST. LOUIS EDWARD JONES DOME • LINE: RAMS BY 2 1/2 TV: CH. 9 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Chicago 17 FINAL
Detroit 34
Philadelphia 33 FINAL
Dallas 10
Seattle 19 FINAL
San Francisco 3
Cleveland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Buffalo
Washington 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Indianapolis
Tennessee 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Houston
San Diego 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
NY Giants 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Cincinnati 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Oakland 11/30/14 12:00 PM
St. Louis
New Orleans 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Pittsburgh
Carolina 11/30/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Arizona 11/30/14 3:05 PM
Atlanta
New England 11/30/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Denver 11/30/14 7:30 PM
Kansas City
Miami 12/1/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
Edmonton 0 FINAL(OT)
Nashville 1
ULM 54 FINAL
Robert Morris 71
Santa Clara 57 FINAL
Tennessee 64
Oklahoma 59 FINAL
Butler 46
Austin Peay 79 FINAL
Brown 58
Princeton 56 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 62
Coastal Carolina 67 FINAL
Chattanooga 78
Kansas 76 FINAL
Rhode Island 60
Wisconsin 68 FINAL
Georgetown 65
FIU 53 FINAL
USC Upstate 68
Long Island 54 FINAL
Stony Brook 73
San Diego 71 FINAL
Xavier 82
Illinois 88 FINAL
Indiana State 62
Cal State Fullerton 67 FINAL
Wright State 62
Western Ky 62 FINAL
Saint Josephs 59
Michigan State 77 FINAL
Rider 45
UCLA 56 FINAL
North Carolina 78
Long Beach State 73 FINAL
Western Mich 55
Marquette 72 FINAL
Georgia Tech 70
Stephen F Austin 73 FINAL
Prairie View 61
UAB 47 FINAL
Florida 56
Rice 64 1st OT 1:38
Mercer 68
San Jose St 18 1st Half 3:09
Washington 31
Washington St 10:59 PM
UC Santa Barbara
Baylor 10:59 PM
Memphis
LSU 23 FINAL
Texas A&M 17
(6) TCU 48 FINAL
Texas 10
Northern Ill 11/28/14 10:00 AM
Western Mich
Nebraska 11/28/14 11:00 AM
Iowa
Western Ky 11/28/14 11:00 AM
(19) Marshall
UCF 11/28/14 11:00 AM
So Florida
Houston 11/28/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Akron 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Kent State
Ball State 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Bowling Green
Buffalo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Massachusetts
Toledo 11/28/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
Arkansas 11/28/14 1:30 PM
(17) Missouri
Navy 11/28/14 2:00 PM
South Alabama
(13) Arizona State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(12) Arizona
Stanford 11/28/14 2:30 PM
(9) UCLA
(21) Colorado State 11/28/14 2:30 PM
Air Force
Virginia 11/28/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
East Carolina 11/28/14 7:30 PM
Tulsa
North Texas 11/29/14 11:00 AM
TX-San Antonio
Old Dominion 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Fla Atlantic
(16) Georgia Tech 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(8) Georgia
Kentucky 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(24) Louisville
So Carolina 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(23) Clemson
West Virginia 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Iowa State
Rice 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Louisiana Tech
Michigan 11/29/14 11:00 AM
(7) Ohio State
Purdue 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Indiana
Illinois 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Northwestern
Cincinnati 11/29/14 11:00 AM
Temple
NC State 11/29/14 11:30 AM
North Carolina
Syracuse 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Louisiana 11/29/14 11:30 AM
Troy
Utah 11/29/14 12:00 PM
Colorado
Texas State 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Idaho 11/29/14 1:00 PM
Appalachian St
Wyoming 11/29/14 2:00 PM
New Mexico
New Mexico St 11/29/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas State
UAB 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(4) Miss State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(18) Ole Miss
Notre Dame 11/29/14 2:30 PM
USC
(10) Michigan State 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Penn State
(22) Minnesota 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(14) Wisconsin
(5) Baylor 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Texas Tech
Florida 11/29/14 2:30 PM
(1) Florida State
Rutgers 11/29/14 2:30 PM
Maryland
San Jose St 11/29/14 2:30 PM
San Diego St
Tennessee 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Vanderbilt
Kansas 11/29/14 3:00 PM
(11) Kansas State
Connecticut 11/29/14 3:00 PM
Memphis
BYU 11/29/14 3:30 PM
California
ULM 11/29/14 5:00 PM
Ga Southern
Middle Tennessee 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Hawaii 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Fresno State
Wake Forest 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Duke
Pittsburgh 11/29/14 6:00 PM
Miami-Florida
(15) Auburn 11/29/14 6:45 PM
(2) Alabama
(3) Oregon 11/29/14 7:00 PM
Oregon State
Utah State 11/29/14 9:15 PM
(25) Boise State
Washington 11/29/14 9:30 PM
Washington St
Nevada 11/29/14 9:30 PM
UNLV
UCF 12/4/14 6:30 PM
East Carolina
Hamilton 11/30/14 5:00 PM
Calgary
Hartford 43 FINAL
Furman 53
Clemson 77 FINAL
Ohio State 86
Idaho State 53 FINAL
San Diego State 68
East Carolina 58 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 69
Santa Clara 0 Cancelled
Texas-El Paso 0
Florida State 68 FINAL
Washington 80
Wichita State 39 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 56
Wisconsin 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 67
Kansas State 0 Cancelled
LSU 0
BYU 73 FINAL
BYU-Hawaii 52
Charlotte 58 FINAL
Montana 67
Illinois 77 FINAL
(9) Kentucky 71
Central Michigan 61 FINAL
Richmond 56
Oklahoma 68 FINAL
South Florida 83
Princeton 72 FINAL
Wake Forest 55
(19) Oregon State 85 FINAL
Butler 53

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Will the Gophers bring home The Axe?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close