The huddle broke and Vikings players made a beeline from the indoors practice field at Winter Park to the cafeteria. Lunch beckoned, but not for the team’s defensive backs. They knew the drill.
The entire secondary sticks around after every practice and every walkthrough for more drills and instruction from defensive backs coach Joe Woods. The group often spends 10 to 15 extra minutes going over schemes and working on individual ball skills.
“Just trying to get better,” Woods said this week after another session with his position group. “And take advantage of all the time I’ve got.”
Woods probably feels like there’s not enough time in the day to fix all that’s gone wrong this season. Nothing trumps the Vikings quarterback carousel in explaining the team’s 1-6 record entering Sunday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, but woeful secondary play belongs second on the list of reasons.
The Vikings rank 29th in passing defense and are tied for second in touchdown passes allowed with 16. The secondary has accounted for only two interceptions — both by injured safety Harrison Smith — and the Vikings join the New York Jets as the only NFL teams that have no interceptions from their cornerbacks.
“It’s been rough obviously because we haven’t been playing well,” Woods said. “But the biggest thing for the guys is just trying to get better every game.”
Things could get worse against a Cowboys team that owns a top-10 passing attack behind quarterback Tony Romo and his talented collection of pass catchers. For starters, the Vikings secondary is depleted by injury. Smith already is on injured reserve because of turf toe and cornerback Chris Cook (hip) and safety Jamarca Sanford (groin) will be inactive because of injuries.
That means the Vikings likely will roll out a starting secondary that consists of Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond at safety and Josh Robinson and Marcus Sherels at cornerback. That group has only 28 career starts combined.
Woods acknowledged that inexperience has contributed to his group’s struggles, but he quickly noted that “there’s no excuses” in the NFL.
“It’s a show-me game,” he said. “You have to show up on Sunday and play.”
The secondary’s issues come as no major surprise. The Vikings arrived at training camp with a bright warning sign flashing at that position.
The team’s decision to release savvy veteran Antoine Winfield in the offseason looked like a risky cost-cutting measure that could have a severe ripple effect across the entire defense. The organization thrust second-year cornerback Josh Robinson into the slot/nickel role that Winfield handled so skillfully, even though Robinson had a shaky rookie season and never had played that position in his career.
Predictably, Robinson has struggled in his new role as opposing quarterbacks repeatedly have targeted him. In its statistical analysis, ProFootballFocus ranks Robinson as the third-worst cover corner in the NFL.
“When I was told that I would be playing that position, I was told also that it’s going to be a process,” Robinson said.
Robinson admitted that he expected opponents to challenge him because “I knew it was a new position and the word was out there.”
“I knew they would say, ‘OK, let’s see what he can do. Can he defend in zone coverage?’” Robinson said.