Sunday slant: Finding their ‘big knockers'

Jerry Burns' visit to Vikings camp rekindled memories of great Vikings defenses and a regular Burnsie phrase, but the current Vikings defense needs to find their own "big knockers" to rise to that level.

Former Vikings coach Jerry Burns was an interesting candidate to address the current team at the midway point of Mike Zimmer's first round of organized team activities Thursday.

Burnsie was known mostly for his humor, his crusty-yet-endearing way and a mouth that could turn a blue streak into a narrative (or maybe the other way around). During his run as offensive coordinator with the Vikings under Bud Grant and later as the team's head coach, Burnsie had a repeating them: The "big knockers" need to come to play. It was a phrase befitting of the beloved Burns and it meant his stars needed to shine in order for wins to follow.

We might find out in the coming year or so that Zimmer and Burnsie have similar personalities. Zimmer sure seemed to enjoy the way Burns regaled the team after Thursday's practice. But one difference, at least at the beginning of Zimmer's tenure with the Vikings, is the amount of big knockers, especially on defense.

Burns, a member of the Vikings Ring of Honor, was the Vikings offensive coordinator from 1968-85 and head coach from 1986-91. His tenure alone shows how different that era of Vikings coaching was – stability was the norm, not the exception. So were deep playoff runs and Super Bowl heartbreaks. But while Burns concentrated on the less talented offensive side of the ball, his defenses were studded with stars – the Ring of Honor has more defensive players than offensive players inducted, a rarity in a game where offensive statistics and fantasy football are all the talk.

Zimmer's Vikings got rid of perhaps their two biggest defensive stars over the last seven years – Jared Allen and Kevin Williams. So who are their "big knockers?" Right now, that question would more likely need to be answered with a futures investment rather than an established stock.

Chad Greenway has been solid but hasn't been a perennial Pro Bowler. Same with Brian Robison, another player in his 30s that has been an integral contributor but still hasn't pierced the 10-sack barrier. Zimmer doesn't have any established "big knockers" like Burnsie did throughout the years with players like John Randle, Chris Doleman and Scott Studwell during his head coaching days or Alan Page, Paul Krause, Jim Marshall, Carl Eller or Matt Blair during his days as an offensive coordinator.

To make matters worse for Zimmer in his first offseason trying to install a new defense, many of those hoping to be contributors or, even better, future "big knockers" on defense, haven't been able to be on the field. Injury and NFL rules have kept the defense from experiencing much continuity during the installation dog days of early summer.

On the defensive front seven, Scott Crichton hasn't been in Minnesota since the end of rookie minicamp in mid-May and won't be allowed to join again until the mandatory minicamp June 17-19 that is the last string of practices before training camp in late July. He and first-round pick Anthony Barr are required to be back at their respective Pac-12 schools – UCLA for Barr and Oregon State for Crichton – because those schools are on a quarters system and still in session. Everson Griffen has also been limited with a strained back and Corey Wootton has been practicing with a brace on his right knee.

But the biggest issue with the Vikings defense over the last several years has been the secondary. Players like Cedric Griffin, Asher Allen, Chris Cook and Tyrell Johnson – all second- or third-round draft choices – have failed to live up to starting status, and came up well short of "big knocker" classification.

The defensive secondary is where Zimmer is most involved because that's where he believes he is strongest in his coaching points and because that's where help is needed most. It's also where one of the Vikings' most respected position coaches also dispenses his wisdom. Like Zimmer, Jerry Gray has been vocal and involved with the defensive backs.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, the consistency of applying the coaching points hasn't been established because of injury. Josh Robinson could be the favorite to win the starting right cornerback spot, but, while he attends the practices, he hasn't been a regular participant in the last few weeks because of injury. That's also why Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo haven't been battling it out much alongside Harrison Smith for the other opening at safety, leaving the OTA reps with the first team to be rotated among Robert Blanton, Kurt Coleman and rookie Antone Exum.

Eventually, the Vikings believe they have most of the pieces in place to find the defensive success the franchise established during the Burns era. For now, however, the process is being delayed somewhat by injury. The pass defense can hardly be much worse than it was over the last few years, but in order to turn elite again, it will require the emerging and now-developing talent to turn from prospects to "big knockers."


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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