Improvement is secondary's primary objective

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 17, 2012 - 3:16 PM

Opposing quarterbacks exploited the depleted defensive backfield of the 2011 Vikings. This year will be different, coach Joe Woods vows.

There's a reason Joe Woods is smiling. Actually, there are several.

After what he went through a year ago, the Vikings defensive backs coach feels pretty good about a fresh start that comes with three promising draft picks, two veteran free-agent acquisitions and the return of starting cornerbacks Chris Cook and Antoine Winfield after the pair missed a combined 21 games a year ago.

"Yes," Woods said, "I'm extremely happy."

True happiness won't come until Woods' guys prove themselves against the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler during the regular season. But we'll spot him an early smile or two and admit there's at least reason for optimism a year after the Vikings and their depleted secondary allowed opponents to complete 68.2 percent of their passes with 34 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a passer rating (107.6) that was second-worst in NFL history behind only the 0-16 Detroit Lions of 2008 (110.9).

If last season is any indication, the Vikings will keep six cornerbacks and five safeties when they assemble their final 53-man roster.

We spent some time getting Woods' thoughts on what he's sorting through as the Vikings prepared to face the Buffalo Bills in the second preseason game on Friday night at Mall of America Field.

Winfield's role will determine how critical it is for free-agent acquisition Chris Carr to prove he can be the kind of full-time starter he was with Baltimore in 2011.

What's the story? Winfield is 35 and missed 17 games because of injuries the past three years (11 last year, six in 2009). Can he be counted on to be an everyday corner, or is playing nickel back full time -- or lining up at safety -- in his future?

What Woods said: "Antoine can be counted on to be an every-down player. The injuries he got over the last years were freakish injuries.

"They had nothing to do with playing physical, the way he plays the game. Last year, he fell awkwardly and now he gets a [broken] clavicle. He gets the foot injury [in 2009]. Antoine seems like the Antoine of old. He really did a great job in the offseason, so he's ready to go. ...

"I wouldn't say we're looking to make him the nickelback because he can still play at a high level on the outside. That decision will be based on how the other guys are doing. ... As far as safety is concerned, no. Antoine is my emergency safety if we have a bunch of injuries in a game. But he'll never move and play safety for me."

Meaningful improvement by the woeful secondary could hinge on whether Harrison Smith lives up to expectations.

What's the story? The first-round draft pick from Notre Dame brings an attitude, a swagger and, oh yeah, a lot of natural talent that we haven't been seen at the safety position in Minnesota in a long time. Smith will get his first preseason start Friday and presumably lock in to that role for years to come.

What Woods said: "You don't often get young guys who come in and have that confidence and that great football awareness right away. That's what Harrison brings to the table. He hasn't backed off from anybody. He's competing. He'll challenge anybody on the team. ...

"Whoever the two best safeties are will start. When you learn the safety position in our defense, whether you're the strong or the free, you always have to do both jobs based on the coverages that we run. So all those guys in the back are interchangeable. If we run one of our three-deep coverages, Cover 3, the strong safety is down in the box and the free safety is in the hole. If we run Cover 6, the free safety is down in the box and the strong safety is in the hole."

Cook has said all the right things, but his actions over the course of a full season and beyond are all that matters.

What's the story? Cook was emerging as a potential elite NFL corner when his 2011 season ended with an arrest on the eve of the team's seventh game. He was acquitted of felony domestic assault charges, but can he be trusted again after letting everybody down in such a horrendous manner?

What Woods said: "We deal with a lot of young men. You have to trust that people will do the right things. Everybody makes mistakes. You just hope he learns from it and doesn't put himself in that position again. But you can't control that.

"There was no anger toward Chris. When a guy gets into a situation like that, you're more concerned about how you can help him to eliminate the problems that he had. The biggest thing with Chris was sitting down and talking to him to see where he was at. Seeing why he had the problems at that point and talking to him and letting him know that as a professional athlete you can't do those things.

"... He's taken all the right steps since the incident. I think he's going to do the right things and you won't see him get into trouble anymore. I have trust in him, 100 percent. But, again, you can't control what guys do off the field. You can't do it."

Zack Bowman could be fighting a number of young, flashy players for one of the two final ornerback spots.

What's the story? Bowman came in via free agency from the Bears, but doesn't seem to have a chance of cracking the projected top four corners (Winfield, Cook, Carr and rookie Josh Robinson). Bowman might be battling youngsters Brandon Burton, Reggie Jones and Marcus Sherels for presumably two spots. Where does Bowman stand and what about the "flash" plays that some of the youngsters, particularly Jones, had in Mankato?

What Woods said: "Zack is right in the mix. And in terms of the reps, I keep track of them. They all get the same number of reps. During practice, you see we have all kinds of different rotations. ... It all comes down to what they do on game day. ...

"From a fan perspective and for you guys [media] watching practice, you notice Reggie's flashing and making plays on the ball. But sometimes you do your job and the ball doesn't come your way. So for us as coaches, when we watch tape, we see another guy, for instance Sherels or [Bobby] Felder, do their job so well that they take that throw away from the quarterback."

Mistral Raymond appears to have the edge over Jamarca Sanford at safety, but there are concerns.

What's the story? Raymond, a second-year player, probably will end up starting alongside Smith at safety. But one mistake in last week's preseason-opening loss at San Francisco was particularly concerning. It came when 6-4, 264-pound running back Brandon Jacobs broke into the open field. Raymond either took a bad angle, which has been a recurring problem for Vikings safeties in recent years, or, worse yet, he wanted no part of that collision.

What Woods said: "During that game, Mistral had some nice tackles and took on some blockers. It's not a deal of whether he's willing or not. He's a striker. He'll go hit you. He's developing. It was just a bad angle. They caught us with a personnel situation. We called a defense for different personnel. So we had to adjust that defense and Mistral ended up in that position.

"We still have hard decisions to make. So if I had to give us a grade right now? I don't know if 'incomplete' is the right word. But we're still a work in progress."

  • VIKINGS PRESEASON

    Exhibition: 7 tonight vs. Buffalo • Mall of America Field at Metrodome • TV: Ch. 11 (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

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