Vikings will find out how much they've upgraded their secondary

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 2012 - 11:42 AM

Torched weekly last year, the defensive backfield got a needed makeover, starting with free safety.

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Rookie free safety Harrison Smith tipped the ball away from Jarius Wright in Mankato

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Creative, diverse and unpredictable aren't three words typically associated with the Vikings' Tampa 2 defense. But that could change after the team's concerted effort to upgrade the woefully weak secondary that limped to the finish of last year's 3-13 meltdown.¶ Better depth and a higher quality of players are, according to coach Leslie Frazier, the keys to enabling first-year defensive coordinator Alan Williams the freedom to be more creative in his game plans and more aggressive on game days. And that can make a huge difference when it comes to facing the quarterbacks and loaded receiving corps in Green Bay, Chicago and Detroit.

"There are some things we can do personnel-wise ... versus where we have been in the past," Frazier said. "Now, we can match up a little bit better when people go three, four, and five wide receivers. It eliminates the potential of us having to stay in zone coverage all the time, like we've had to do, particularly last year."

The biggest upgrade comes at free safety, where the Vikings traded back into the first round to select Notre Dame's Harrison Smith. The 6-2, 214-pounder became a starter by the second preseason game because of his coverage skills, instincts and aggressive style of play.

The Vikings went on to invest two more draft picks on their secondary. Third-rounder Josh Robinson, the fastest player at this year's scouting combine, will be the nickel back, while fifth-rounder Robert Blanton is a longer-term project at strong safety.

The Vikings' youth movement got even younger at cornerback when it came time for final cuts. Offseason free-agent acquisitions Chris Carr, 29, and Zack Bowman, 27, were released while A.J. Jefferson, 24, was acquired in a trade with the Cardinals. Jefferson, who started seven games a year ago, will be one of the team's top four corners. At 6-1, 190, he'll also have the size needed to cover the big receivers in the NFC North.

Of course, more important than any acquisition is the return of starting corners Antoine Winfield and Chris Cook. Winfield missed 11 games because of neck and collarbone injuries last season. Cook, meanwhile, spent the final 10 games in exile as he battled felony domestic assault charges.

"This is the deepest we've been at DB since I've been here," said defensive end Jared Allen, who arrived in 2008. "I think we put in some different back-end packages this year because those guys look like they're flying around back there and doing some good things."

With more trust in the defensive backs' ability to play man-to-man coverage, the Vikings can blitz more than they have in recent years. That means being able to better utilize the versatile pass-rushing skills of Everson Griffen, a backup defensive end who also can play linebacker in passing situations.

"We've just got a lot more weapons that we can use," Allen said. "That's one thing with injuries in the past that we didn't have."

The Vikings' youth movement in the secondary comes with a definite leap of faith. Of the 11 defensive backs on the roster, only two -- Winfield, 35, and safety Jamarca Sanford, 26 -- are older than 25.

Frazier was asked what it was like last season to try to game plan for NFC North opponents and the better offenses in the league with a decimated secondary. He laughed and held up a hand to stop the reporter in mid question.

"Don't make me go back," he said. "Those are bad memories.

"We played a team -- I won't mention the team -- and one of the secondary coaches called me after the game and said, 'Man, going into the game we knew if we put this put this package on the field you couldn't match up. If we did this, you couldn't match up. I don't know what you are going to do, but you guys have to address your secondary.' It's not a lot of fun, but I think we have addressed some of those issues this offseason and now if we can keep our guys healthy it should help us to answer some questions when we play opposing offenses."

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