The Minnesota Vikings' much-discussed and maligned secondary has come under fire mainly because of its pass coverage. It is, after all, a key part of the 29th-ranked pass defense in the NFL.
While the defense as a whole played a respectable game against the Dallas Cowboys before giving up a 90-yard, game-winning drive that culminated in a touchdown with 35 seconds left, the poor tackling in some instances might have hurt more than the pass coverage.
Case in point: safety Mistral Raymond.
Raymond missed tackles on three of the Cowboys' four longest plays Sunday, including the first and last drives of the game that resulted in a field goal and touchdown, respectively, and another touchdown drive.
On the Cowboys' first possession, RB DeMarco Murry took a handoff and put a move on Raymond that the safety's legs buckling without Raymond even touching Murray. Raymond at least got up and eventually made the tackle after a 27-yard run.
On the first drive of the second half, TE Jason Witten took a 4-yard curl route 26 yards because Raymond missed the tackle on him right after the catch. On the next play, Witten got a 26-yard touchdown by splitting the seam between Raymond and fellow safety Robert Blanton and easily getting behind MLB Erin Henderson who came up to support the run on a play-action fake.
While the Cowboys' final drive has been pointed to often for the pass-rushing numbers the defensive line was employing, the biggest play of that drive and of the game for the Cowboys was assisted by Raymond missing a tackle of Dez Bryant in the midst of him taking a short pass over the middle and turning it in a 34-yard play that put the Cowboys in scoring position at the 21-yard line.
"You've got to make those open-field tackles. Those are plays that you've just got to make," Vikings coach Leslie Frazier said when asked about Raymond's struggles "You can't have 5-yard catches becoming big plays. It's something he's got to get better at. We're thin back there so there's not a lot of alternatives."
Defensive coordinator Alan Williams pointed the tackling technique of Raymond.
"He'll tell you that it's just getting his feet up underneath him and back into the aspect of playing real football, because in practice you don't tackle live, so when he was injured, he was out for a while," Williams said when asked about Raymond's struggles with tackling. "He didn't play a whole bunch of preseason, so he's still getting his feet up underneath him, so he knows he's been working on it, and each week he continues to get better. I don't know if there's an easy solution to that, other than making sure he closes the distance a little bit more and doesn't shoot his gun so early."
Raymond didn't play in the first three games and then was called into duty for almost half the snaps in the Vikings' only win of the season, against Pittsburgh, when Jamarca Sanford was out with injury. Raymond and Andrew Sendejo essentially split snaps in that game next to Harrison Smith.
However, with Smith out the last 3½ games with turf toe suffered against the Carolina Panthers and Sanford back on the inactive list for most of the last two games with a groin injury, Sendejo has been pressed into starting duty, leaving Raymond and second-year pro Blanton to pick up the snaps at the other safety position.
Williams said Raymond will start again over Blanton, but the two are expected rotated series, likely playing two series and taking two series off. Against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, it was nearly equal reps, with Raymond getting 38 snaps and Blanton 33.
"(Blanton) will continue to get reps. He's coming along, and I think coming along in a good way and a big way, so he'll continue to get reps, and we'll continue to evaluate guys as they play, as we do every position," Williams said. "It just so happens that they played two series at a time, and some of the times that Blanton played, there were some three-and-outs, so his reps may not have been as much as Mistral's."
Raymond said not playing in the first three games of the season has nothing to do with his play of late.
"I wouldn't say not playing early and now being a position to play that there's an adjustment. I'm not a guy that's new to this. I've played an extensive amount of football since I've been in the league. I'm comfortable," he said. "I think at the end of the day, all it boils down to is a coach is going to make a play-call and we have to execute the call, whether it's a call we agree with or not. Whatever the situation may be, the coaches made the call and we've just got to be able to execute it."
He will be pressed into extensive action again. The Vikings have only three healthy safeties on the roster for Thursday night's game – Sendejo, Raymond and Blanton. The starters – Smith, who is on injured reserve/designated for return, and Sanford, who has been ruled out for the second straight week – won't be available.
Raymond said he will just have to continue to work to get better.
"I haven't played a perfect game in my life. So with that being said, there's always room for improvement," he said. "I think I definitely can pick up the way I've been playing. I think a lot of guys, if you go around, even some of the guys that have been making great plays, they'll tell you the same thing. There's always room for improvement."
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Missed tackles plaguing safety Raymond
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