The Vikings’ struggling defense will be turning over parts of the depth chart again Sunday against the Titans.
Three cornerbacks are on the Vikings’ final injury report, which ruled out Mike Hughes (neck) and Cameron Dantzler (rib) and listed Kris Boyd (hamstring) as questionable to play against Tennessee. This comes as coach Mike Zimmer also has to replace linebacker Anthony Barr, who announced Friday he underwent successful surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle suffered against the Colts.
Some newcomers, including first-round rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney, will step into bigger roles.
“We’ve got a lot of corners on this team,” Zimmer said Friday via videoconference. “That’s part of the plan all along, to have some extra guys. We’ll be all right.”
How long they’ll be without Hughes, whose neck issues resurfaced on the injury report this week after he played 77.5% of the defensive snaps in two games, remains unclear. But the Vikings believe it’s not at least a three-week injury, or he’d be on injured reserve. Hughes’ 2019 season ended because of a cracked vertebra, and Zimmer was asked Friday if this neck injury is related.
“I don’t believe so,” Zimmer said. “I think he’s going to be fine.”
Dantzler jogged on a side field with a Vikings trainer during Friday’s practice, but he has not been able to practice since injuring the rib Sept. 13 vs. the Packers. The Vikings defense is expected to turn to cornerbacks Holton Hill, Gladney and, if healthy enough, Boyd, who played a career-high 49 defensive snaps in last year’s regular season finale. The Vikings also have cornerbacks Mark Fields and rookie Harrison Hand.
“Kris has done a nice job with the opportunities he’s had to go in,” Zimmer said. “He played a lot in the last game last year, and then he’s done a nice job in training camp.”
Early returns on new linebacker Todd Davis, the former Broncos leading tackler who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings this week, have been good after two practices, according to Zimmer. Davis could play a two-down role when he’s up to speed, but “that’d be a lot” to ask of Davis to contribute right away against the Titans.
“He’s an experienced, smart linebacker,” Zimmer said. “Played with [Gary] Kubiak before. He’s fast. I’ve bene very impressed with him in the short time he’s been here.”
Linebacker Ryan Connelly or Hardy Nickerson Jr. is expected to replace Barr in the Vikings’ 4-3 base defense on Sunday, while fourth-year linebacker Eric Wilson’s role will increase as he plays every snap opposite Eric Kendricks.
Sharpe facing old team
Receiver Tajae Sharpe hasn’t played much of a role for the Vikings offense — one target in 16 snaps — but he likely had plenty to share with teammates this week in breaking down an established Titans secondary that he knows well, going back to when he was a 2016 fifth-round pick by Tennessee.
“I’ve been competing against those guys for four years every day in practice,” said Sharpe, who signed a one-year deal with the Vikings this spring. “It’s going to be fun seeing those guys on the other side of the ball. They do a lot of good things defensively, they fly around and play hard.”
Bradbury’s job ‘huge’
The Titans defense under coach Mike Vrabel has veterans at every level, and many have played together for multiple seasons.
A variety of fronts can confuse blocking assignments while moving players such as defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney around, so second-year center Garrett Bradbury’s job of identifying those fronts and calling out adjustments in protections is important.
“That’s going to be a huge part this week,” Bradbury said. “Communication. We’ve got to get everyone on the same page. Because if we’re all working on the same page, then we’re going to execute.”
Beasley to debut
Edge rusher Vic Beasley is set to make his Titans debut against the Vikings after missing the first two games of the season because of a knee injury. Beasley, a former first-round pick by the Falcons, was a full participant in practices this week.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be without his top receiving weapon, A.J. Brown, for another week as Brown recovers from a knee injury. The Titans also ruled out cornerback Chris Jackson (hamstring) and linebacker Derrick Roberson (illness).