Crocker is Zimmer’s interpreter for Vikings

Veteran safety Chris Crocker brings more value to Mike Zimmer’s defense than just his athletic ability.

Chris Crocker’s role has morphed and advanced over the years. He went from being a young player eager to learn as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2003 to a veteran willing to sign during training camp with the Minnesota Vikings in 2014.

Crocker’s career has taken him from the Cleveland Browns in 2003 to the Atlanta Falcons in 2006-07, where he first starting playing for Mike Zimmer, to the Miami Dolphins for six games in 2008 to the Cincinnati Bengals from 2008-2013. For seven of the past eight years of his career, there has been one common theme: Zimmer.

Crocker likely knows Zimmer’s defense better than some of the new defensive coaches, and he is certainly more versed in it than the players, most of whom are experiencing the scheme for the first time in their career. But Crocker’s value goes beyond the X’s and O’s and into the language of Zim.

“I feel as if I definitely have a head start, so I’m able to help out the guys understand what he’s trying to say. It’s not really how he’s trying to say it, it’s what he’s trying to say,” Crocker said.

Throughout the years, Zimmer has gained a reputation for being blunt, a term he wasn’t sure was accurate when he was first hired by the Vikings. But his coaching technique, when viewed as a whole, is much more about teaching technique and the finer points than being a screamer. Sure, Zimmer can turn a blue streak on occasion, but there is much more method than madness.

Crocker knows.

“The delivery might not sound good,” he said, “but there’s a message with him. So I’m able to say, ‘Hey, this is what he really means,’ so we’ll go from there.”

The coaching points were obvious even during Monday morning’s walk-through practice. Zimmer was viewing red zone work from the back of the end zone, moving from one defensive player to the next after different plays – from rookie linebacker Anthony Barr to veteran safety Kurt Coleman – honing alignment, technique or assignment.

Crocker only joined the team a week ago, but he’s already making an impact, and much more mental than physical at this point. He didn’t play in Friday night’s game, mainly because he had to get back in football shape, but he’s been working on an off with the first-team defense to give Zimmer an experienced voice on the field.

Had he been signed earlier – a decision by either him or the team that he wanted to keep private, despite communicating with Zimmer throughout the offseason – he is confident he would be starter now.

“Obviously. But I think (Zimmer) has confidence that I’m able to do that. I’ve shown that I can come in later on and still play at a high level, and you know I’m an older guy so it’s sort of like, hey, he’ll give me a little break,” Crocker said. “I didn’t come in the first week and a half of camp. I’m the older guy, been there, done that, seen it. So if I’m not able to come in and acclimate fast then I shouldn’t be here.”

Each of the last two seasons, Crocker didn’t play until Week 4 as a late signing by the Bengals. But every year veteran savvy is added to replace what age may have taken away in athleticism.

“We know he’s a true pro, great communicator back there. He has an extensive knowledge in this defensive scheme so he’s not going to be surprised by what somebody offensively does schematically and those kinds of things,” defensive coordinator George Edwards. “He’s a good blitzer, good physical football player in the run game, so from that aspect of it we know he brings those things to the table. He’s kind of just come in and really been a calming storm with the injuries we’ve had back there at safety.”

Robert Blanton started training camp next Harrison Smith as a starter, but a hamstring injury two weeks ago has halted his practice regimen. Jamarca Sanford, a starter last year under Leslie Frazier, has been out the last week with a sore back. Kurt Coleman has seen some action with the first team and made the start in the preseason opener.

But Crocker is among the players that has a chance to start next to Smith.

“You have to be versatile; you can’t just be one thing. You can’t just be an in-the-box safety or a cover guy,” Crocker said of Zimmer’s wish list for the safeties. “You have to be able to do both things, so you’ll see both of us (him and Smith) doing a lot of the same stuff, and I’ll help them along the way, because there’s a lot of intricacies, a lot of little things, that you may not get until Sunday and it’s too late.”

After 11 years in the league and seven with Zimmer, Crocker knows of what he speaks. And he’s bringing that to the younger players on defense.

“Honestly, I’ve really enjoyed a lot of that part of my career because I’ve sort of been a mentor to younger guys. It’s just like when you get older. You just appreciate the little things so much more,” he said. “When you’re young you’re so focused on yourself and what you have to do, and you get a little older you start to see what’s going on around you. I really enjoy those things, so I’ll miss those things when I leave this game, but you know I’m here to make plays.

“When you’re with someone else for so long, you know, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. (Zimmer) has meant a lot. He honestly has meant a lot. He’s got me to play at my highest level. I don’t know how, but he has got me to play at a very high level throughout my career and I’ve played my best football with him.”

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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