There was a moment, toward the end of a rare in-season news conference with General Manager Rick Spielman on Wednesday, to catch a subtle change in the way the Vikings are framing their 2020 season.
After speaking to the reporters who regularly cover the team at the beginning of training camp, Spielman ordinarily will field only wide-ranging questions on the state of the team during the bye week, out of a stated belief the head coach should be its main voice during the regular season. He occasionally grants selected interviews on specific topics but otherwise keeps his thoughts on the team behind the scenes until after the season is over.
When the Tennessee Titans’ batch of positive COVID-19 tests forced the Vikings to close their facility for two days this week, though, Spielman spoke publicly on how the organization had reacted to mitigate exposure to the virus. Asked for his thoughts on the 0-3 Vikings at the end of the session, the ninth-year GM fixed his perspective on the team’s young defense.
“I think, you know, everybody’s working extremely hard,” Spielman said. “On the defensive side, as we sat there and watched the tape, we’re improving each week. I know we have a lot of new faces, a lot of new starters on the defense. Coach Zim [Mike Zimmer] and the players down in the locker room have a very strong belief that we’re going to get this turned around. And we just continue to work and get better each week.”
He noted that in addition to players learning the schemes, coaches are also learning on the fly what players can do.
“Zim’s done a great job trying to adjust some of the schemes to fit some of the players as he learns what the players can do as well,” Spielman said.
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Spielman talked of an “evolution of the roster” this offseason, and acknowledged in his Aug. 3 training camp news conference that “there’s going to be growing pains,” but that the Vikings would have an advantage through their defensive coaching staff’s ability to develop players quickly.
His comments Wednesday, though, came before Zimmer’s Wednesday admission that the process of developing young defenders has “taken a little longer” than he anticipated and co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson’s Thursday remarks about “when you’re in the middle of this, you’re looking for daily, weekly improvement.”
It created a multifaceted assessment — from GM, coach and coordinator — the Vikings rarely offer during a 24-hour period in the regular season. And taken together, the comments suggested even the Vikings might be viewing 2020 on different terms than they had originally foreseen.
Consider August, when Spielman marked his new three-year contract by talking about the Vikings’ yearly goal of winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history and remaining competitive each year. That same month, Zimmer remarked to NFL Network, “I’ve never had a bad defense — ever,” while talking about how he was refreshed by the challenge of a real-time overhaul of a group that parted with five mainstays in the offseason.
“It gets you rejuvenated to go out and, honestly, people say, ‘Hey, they’re not going to be good on defense,’ ” Zimmer said early in training camp. “OK, well, let’s find out. Let’s go prove it.”
The Vikings’ measured tones drew a sharp contrast with their training camp talk this week, after they allowed more yards than all but two teams in the league and more points than all but one during an 0-3 start.
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At no position might their rhetorical shift be more justified than at cornerback, where by kickoff Sunday the Vikings might have started a rookie more often than in any other season under Zimmer.
First-round pick Jeff Gladney has started the Vikings’ past two games, after fellow rookie Cameron Dantzler suffered a rib injury that kept him out for the Vikings’ losses to Indianapolis and Houston. If Gladney starts a third game on Sunday, he’ll surpass Mike Hughes’ two starts in 2018 as the most by a Vikings rookie corner in a Zimmer defense.
With eight starts this season, either Gladney or Dantzler would become the first rookie defensive back to start half a season in a Zimmer defense since Pat Watkins did it for the Cowboys in 2006. Gladney has played 142 defensive snaps this season; Hughes played 243 in six games as a rookie in 2018 before tearing an ACL. Trae Waynes played 195 after the Vikings took him 11th overall in 2015, and Mackensie Alexander played 68 as a rookie in 2016.
The Vikings have ordinarily been able to take it slow with young defensive backs under Zimmer because of how much they’d invested in more established options. Xavier Rhodes was heading into his third year, and the Vikings signed Terence Newman — still one of just two rookie defensive backs to start all 16 games for Zimmer — before drafting Waynes in 2015. The presence of Rhodes, Waynes and Newman allowed the Vikings to take it slow with Alexander in 2016, and while Hughes earned a larger role by the third game of his rookie season, the Vikings were able to let him compete for playing time in a well-established cornerback group.
“Usually [playing time depends on] whoever is ahead of them. That’s the easiest way to say it,” Zimmer said. “Some guys have to get thrown in [to the] fire because they’re the best ones at the time, and some other ones have a veteran guy in front of them. Our process-wise this year is we have young guys, so they’ve got to get in there.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to be better for them because they’re learning every week. These guys, the first time you go out and play, it’s against Aaron Rodgers, and it’s your first taste of NFL football.”
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Safety Harrison Smith, the only player in the Vikings’ secondary to start 16 games as a rookie, said the developmental value of learning on the field is ultimately worth the short-term pain.
“It’s good to get those reps, know how you feel out there during the game — kind of the more human aspects that go into it, as far as getting tired, getting play calls, communicating with your teammates, recognizing formations in real time, instead of being able to rewind and say, ‘Oh, OK — now I see it,’ ” he said.
Smith also noted the caliber of quarterback the young corners are facing in the opening weeks of the season.
“In my opinion, it’s good to start with the best, because you’re not going to be shocked by anything else you face,” he said. “You’re coming out of the gate with Rodgers and [Philip] Rivers, and all these quarterbacks — [Deshaun] Watson and everybody we’ve got coming up. It’ll be good for guys in their career to face the best early on.”
Beating those players early is a tall order, though. It all hints at a longer development cycle than what the Vikings were conveying earlier this year, and injuries — to Hughes’ neck, Dantzler’s ribs, Danielle Hunter’s neck and Anthony Barr’s pectoral muscle — have further thinned the defense.
In Zimmer’s pointed critique of the Vikings’ offense last Sunday, he said he expected the veteran group to go win the game and called the final drive “chaos” in a way that seemed to take quarterback Kirk Cousins aback. For the Vikings to revamp their defense at the same time they’re trying to win with a top-loaded roster, they’ll likely need their offense to pick up their defense after years of things going the other way.
Whether the Vikings are preaching patience now because they’re adjusting to what they’ve seen play out in front of them, or because they’re trying to buy themselves time in light of win-now moves like extensions for Spielman, Zimmer, Cousins and Dalvin Cook, is known only to them.
As they head into Week 4 against a Texans team that’s also gone from the division playoffs to an 0-3 start, perhaps the Vikings’ venerated safety put it best.
“There’s areas where we’ve actually been strong all year — red zone, stuff like that — and there are other ones where we’ve been very poor; deep balls being one we just talked about,” Smith said. “That’s great, but winning is really all that matters. And I understand: You want progress, you want to see things get better. But still, without wins, like — that’s why we’re here. We’re here to win. That’s it.”
Ben Goessling covers the Vikings for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @GoesslingStrib