Experienced players and a different system can make all the difference.
Defensive coordinator George O'Leary is implementing the different system. Assistant secondary coach Kevin Ross played 14 years of NFL defensive back, so he knows about experienced players, something the Vikings have obtained in the offseason. Ross has only an internship for coaching experience, but it appears the cornerbacks are responding to his tutoring in spring camps.
Because of an upgrade in talent through the free-agent market, the Vikings finally have some experience at cornerback, with Denard Walker and Ken Irvin leading as the starters. But they also have something else going for them over last year -- a different scheme under O'Leary, one that the coaches think will be easier for the players to understand.
"(O'Leary's) system is one where the players can excel and not have a lot of thinking to do. They can see and just go play the game," Ross said. "As a player, you just want to be able to play the game. I tell my guys you've got to be able to think the game as you play it. There are certain sets where they'll have a tendency to do things, and you need to know when and where you can take this chance. It's a very hard position out there. The way they sling that ball around these days you've got to be mentally tough."
Already Ross is seeing some signs of improvement over the time he spent in his internship last year. Where are the defensive backs better already? "Competitive. They're competing for the ball," Ross said. "They're not catching the ball, but they're competing for it. There's better communication in the back. They're being more competitive for the ball down the field, which is a plus because if you can't compete for the ball down the field then you have to change your whole scheme up again on defense. Our defense is going to be predicated on how well we do on the outside. If you can't cover on the outside deep and have to roll safeties over the top and things like that, you're limiting what you're doing. Right now, I think they're responding pretty well."
Ross does have more experience and talent in the backfield than the Vikings have had in some time, probably since the days when Corey Fuller, Dewayne Washington, Robert Griffith and Orlando Thomas were all together for the 1996 and 1997 seasons. During those two years, that combination missed a total of only seven starts.
Since then, the consistency has faded. In 1998, Washington left and Jimmy Hitchcock took his place (it was almost Ken Irvin, as the Vikings made a play for him before Hitchcock signed). In 1999, Fuller left and Kenny Wright and Hitchcock were the cornerbacks. In 2000, Thomas missed almost half the games at free safety because of injuries, and Robert Tate, a converted wide receiver, and Cris Dishman were the starting cornerbacks. In 2001, it was Dale Carter and Eric Kelly playing the outside corners most of the time, while Griffith and Thomas missed a combined 13 starts because of injuries.
Last year, of course, was another year of indecision in the defensive backfield. Corey Chavous started all 16 games, but he made a midseason switch from cornerback to safety. Ronnie Bradford, in the sunset of his playing career, started 15 games, and Eric Kelly made 12 starts. After that, no other defensive back started more than half the games despite the Vikings being forced into nickel situations often by opportunistic opponents.
So how much how much will all the turnover from 2002 to 2003 hurt this team?
"If you're 30th, you've got to make moves," Ross said, saying he was part of a defense in Atlanta that had as much change. "We brought in (Chris) Doleman, D.J. Johnson, Clay Matthews, Darryl Talley, Jumpy Geathers -- like six or seven of us came in at one time. We didn't make the playoffs the first year, went .500, then the next year we made the playoffs. So it does work, but it takes a little time to jell. They have to learn how to play off one another. The communication, how you're going to fit in your runs and how you're going to play your passes in the back, how you're going to pass off things -- those things happen with repetition and learning how such-and-such plays a certain route or how such-and-such plays a certain run. That's not going to happen in shorts, I can assure you that. That's going to happen in preseason."
The Vikings actually have more consistency in personnel this year than they did last year. Kelly and Tyrone Carter were the only players to end the 2002 season on the roster who had any real game experience as Vikings. So although Kelly, Jack Brewer and Brian Williams don't return as base-defense starters in 2003, they do bring at least some experience to the backup ranks. And Chavous has a half a season as a starting safety.
But the real key to 2003's defensive backfield probably lies in the upgrade of NFL experience at cornerback with Walker and Irvin.
"Denard Walker is a very aggressive bump-and-run corner. He's a pretty good man player, which is what we need," Ross said. "I think he'll present a lot of problems down the field with people. I think Kenny Irvin is a very smart player, in the sense of he knows when he can do things and when he can't do things. And it's rubbing off on our young guys. I think Eric Kelly is, right now, our most improved player.
"It's too early to say, ‘Is this guy going to be this or this guy going to be that.' I don't really like to judge guys in shorts. I like to judge them when you get the equipment on and the fire has started."
Different System, Different Starters
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