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.'"

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