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.
Robinson said the coaching staff has tweaked his assignments throughout the season in order to simplify things and give him a “cleaner read.” Vikings coaches have shown patience and routinely acknowledged that they understood Robinson would encounter growing pains as he adjusted to his new role.
“You can teach guys drills, and you can go through practice, but it’s different on gameday,” Woods said. “That’s the experience that he has to gain. I can’t help with him that. I can teach him, but in that game environment when there’s pressure, that’s when you’ve got to be able to react. He’s actually playing pretty good in terms of the nickel position.”
And when he’s lined up outside at left cornerback?
“There’s some issues,” Woods said. “But it’s across the board.”
Robinson has become an easy target for criticism, but the secondary’s struggles extend beyond just one player. Now in his fourth season, Cook still has not intercepted a pass or proven that he can stay healthy. Already declared out for Sunday, he will have missed the same number of games that he’s played in his career — 28 — because of injuries and legal issues.
Smith looks like a future star at safety, but Sanford has lacked consistency on the other side. The team drafted rookie cornerback Xavier Rhodes in the first round, but he’s officially only made one start.
Frazier has resisted moving Rhodes ahead of Robinson as the starter on the left side, preferring instead to use the rookie primarily in nickel situations. Rhodes has played 64 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, yet he’s tied for team lead with six pass breakups.
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams said Rhodes is showing gradual improvement but that he still makes youthful mistakes and displays some hesitancy.
“Right now, he’s about 50-50 with playing extremely fast and playing less fast then he should,” Williams said.
Williams remains encouraged by Rhodes’ bright moments. He pointed to the rookie’s tackle — a “grown man tackle,” he said — on a 5-yard catch by Green Bay’s Myles White on a second-and-16 play last week.
“It was exactly like it was diagnosed and played it exactly like we want him to,” Williams said. “You’re saying, ‘Man, we just need to do more of that.’”
Williams tried to drill that message into his secondary and entire defense this week. At his weekly media session Thursday, Williams repeatedly stressed that he believes the Tampa-2 scheme is the right system and that players should tune out “voices” that suggest the Vikings should try something different.
One common complaint is that the Vikings don’t use Cook and Rhodes — two big, physical corners — in press coverage enough.
“I’m just doing whatever the assignment the coaches tell me to do,” Rhodes said. “If it’s press or if they want me to play man off, I’ll do it. It depends on the offense we play against.”
It’s unrealistic to think the Vikings could scrap their entire system and overhaul their personnel in the secondary at this stage of the season. They just have to hope for collective improvement by a group that looks under siege on a weekly basis.
“What it comes down to is, every game each guy is going to have two or three opportunities to make a game-changing play,” Woods said. “Right now, we’re just not making them consistently.”