The Vikings may have finally found a backfield tandem that works. They have that in the offensive backfield already, of course, but now that could be taken care in the defensive backfield as well.
First-round pick Harrison Smith doesn't lack swagger or aggressiveness and 2011 sixth-round pick Mistral Raymond seems to be gaining that edge in his second NFL season. Despite their relative lack of experience – Smith making his first start and Raymond his sixth last Sunday – defensive coordinator Alan Williams didn't hesitate to mix up his coverages and put more responsibility on his young safeties.
"Harrison, for his first start, to move around the way he did and be in position the number of times that he was, played with a lot poise. He had a couple of errors there that he'll get better at as time goes on, but I thought overall he really played well and that play he made in overtime on that deflected pass, that was a big-time play," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "Really liked some of the things that Mistral did as well."
Part of the Vikings' freedom in defensive play-calling likely increased because they were also facing a relatively inexperienced NFL quarterback in Blaine Gabbert. But there is little doubt Williams felt more emboldened than Minnesota's defensive coordinators of recent past, including Frazier, because of the talent he has at safety – something that has been lacking since at least the days of Darren Sharper tracking down balls for interceptions.
The Vikings played single-high safety 27 times in the opener, including twice in four overtime plays. Raymond was the single-deep safety 17 times – 11 times in the second half and overtime – and Smith 10 in the game. They still ran a Cover-2 look more often than leaving a single safety high, but better talent in the back end has given Williams the confidence to apply more pressure closer to the line of scrimmage and trust a single safety to help out cornerbacks in deep coverage.
"When we were playing our best defense, we were not a heavy Cover-2 team and our personnel is getting back to where we need it to be," Frazier said. "The last couple of years, we've struggled on the back end from a personnel standpoint, but we're getting to where we need to be so we can mix up a little bit more and not be as predictable as we had become. It's more about our personnel than anything and, yeah, Alan has some qualities from a defensive coordinator's standpoint that really will help our secondary, especially with his background coaching secondaries. But it's more about our personnel. We're able to do a few more things with some of the personnel we have now."
Raymond and Smith both made plays that should help stoke the confidence from coaches. Smith came up with a huge third-down knockdown of a pass on a diving attempt in overtime. One play later, the Vikings won the game on a Gabbert overthrow.
Raymond also played his part beautifully on a fourth-quarter incompletion when he knocked the ball loose on a deep pass down the middle to avoid a big Jaguars gain.
"The breakup that he had in the middle of the field on that long pass, he was actually going for the interception as opposed to trying to get a knock-out hit and you like to see that," Frazier said. "You like to see your safeties making plays on deep balls and trying to pick the ball off. They both did a lot of good things that I think will help us as time goes on."
Both safeties did their jobs late in the game to protect the lead and that should inspire even more confidence from the coaches.
"Absolutely. I would hope so. We're extremely confident in our coaches and in ourselves," Raymond said. "I'm sure that they're confident in the calls they make and to have us out on the field. That's how it's supposed to work. They believe in us and they expect for us to make plays and it's our job to make plays."
So far, it's just one game and it was against a second-year quarterback that struggled as a rookie, but it's better than the alternative – too timid to play aggressive – which is how it's been in recent years when the Vikings felt compelled to stick with the Cover-2 out of fear.
Vikings RB Toby Gerhart played with Colts QB Andrew Luck at Stanford and had high praise for him.
"The way he controlled the offense, there were a lot of times – I'm not going to compare him to Peyton Manning maybe – but at Stanford, Coach (Jim) Harbaugh would give him control of the play-calling. We'd walk up to the line and it would be all him," Gerhart said. "We didn't have certain keywords or anything special. It would be him calling what he saw, checking us out of plays to what he likes better. As a redshirt freshman, he was doing that when I was there. As he evolved in that offense and as he evolves in this offense, I think he's going to be truly special."
SACK OR NO SACK?
Jared Allen voiced his disagreement with an offside call that negated a sack on the Jaguars' first drive of the opener. Allen finished the game without a sack, and Williams is among those who questioned the call.
The defensive coordinator was asked about Allen not getting a sack in the game.
"Not sacks that counted," he quipped.
Asked if he thought the offside penalty was the wrong call, he wouldn't say.
"That's a no comment," Williams said. "Really, it was close. We looked at the tape and he had a good jump on the ball and they called it as it was and that's what it is. We have to live with it and move on and make sure that we don't get those types of penalties."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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