There was a miscommunication in the Vikings secondary.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who earlier Tuesday held his fourth annual toy drive at a local Target, was expected to join fellow defensive backs later that evening at safety Harrison Smith’s holiday shopping spree for children. Smith playfully let Rhodes hear about his unexpected absence.
“I promised Britt I’d go to the Christmas party,” Rhodes retorted to Smith. “Our date night.”
The Vikings on Saturday night return to Lambeau Field, a year after the infamous “miscommunication” surrounding their coverage of Packers receiver Jordy Nelson in a 38-25 loss. This time, they enter the game with a clean slate and numbers to back up their standing as the best pass defense in the NFL.
The Vikings are allowing the fewest big plays (31 of 20-plus yards) in the league, as well as the second-fewest passing touchdowns (13) and yards per throw (6.3). Up next is Packers quarterback Brett Hundley, who threw three interceptions against the Vikings in his first relief duty Oct. 15 for the injured Aaron Rodgers.
“They’re very well coordinated, they play with tremendous discipline,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy told Twin Cities reporters on a conference call. “The continuity is clearly the highest we’ve seen all year. Their statistics defensively speak for themselves.”
Rhodes, the Pro Bowl cornerback often shadowing an opponent’s top receiver every week, credited the Vikings’ often seamless communication to safeties Andrew Sendejo and Smith. Opposing coaches and players often credit the Vikings’ ability to disguise coverages and place doubt in a quarterback’s mind.
The play clock is ticking. Sometimes it’s a hand signal — a point, wave or tap on the rear — but Rhodes says he instantly knows Smith’s simplified baseball sign giving him an order. The Vikings secondary’s main five of Smith, Rhodes, Sendejo, and cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Terence Newman, are in their third season playing together. Confidence is built by that continuity.
“He makes a check, that lets me know my alignment,” Rhodes said. “Lets me know everything.”
“Unless it’s a charity event,” Smith snipped.
“Like I say, Harrison is the heart of the D,” Rhodes persisted. “He has to make all the calls to the DBs. He has to make sure the nickel has it. ‘Dejo’ has to do the same. Those guys [are] really the hearts of the defense.”
Yet Smith’s season, which has him rated as the best safety in football by Pro Football Focus, wasn’t enough for a third consecutive Pro Bowl berth. Smith missed the cut, something he might’ve seen coming 18 months ago when signing a lucrative contract extension.
Smith, in early 2016, opted not to have incentives tied to Pro Bowl selections in his deal.
“It’s completely arbitrary,” Smith said Wednesday of the selections.
Smith and the Vikings defense are aiming for the bigger picture, which right now is the highest NFC seed possible. An outside shot at the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage seemed like a far-cry possibility last year, when Rodgers had 268 yards and three touchdowns on the Vikings by halftime at Lambeau.
“It was a bad day for us,” Smith said. “That’s what I remember. Couldn’t stop much of anything. I myself had a bad day, too. We expect more out of ourselves in the secondary, especially.”
In a given practice, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray’s voice cuts through the air with one go-to word — “communicate!” The word “miscommunication” hasn’t been heard much around Winter Park since the last time the Vikings went to Green Bay.
Vikings defenders have since been on the same page this season. The final chapter, they hope, is about the first home team ever playing in a Super Bowl.
Guaranteed at least one home playoff game, the Vikings’ defensive rhythm won’t easily be disrupted.
“As much as we love playing at home and the noise and everything, we can’t hear each other either just like the away offense can’t hear anything,” Smith said. “Some things you’ve just got to be on the same page.”