Two spots left to claim on Vikings defense

The starters are beginning to fall into place, but two spots remain open for the seizing.

With new schemes and new personnel on offense and defense, the pieces to the puzzles have slowly been fitting into place. Two spots remain open for debate, however, at least on defense.

The safety spot opposite Harrison Smith is very much an open competition, and the middle linebacker spot may not be settled yet.

Head coach Mike Zimmer hasn’t named a starting quarterback for the regular season yet, but with Matt Cassel consistently good in both of his first two starts and getting the start in the third preseason game, he appears on pace to take that job. That’s the only starting spot in question on offense.

Defensively, with Josh Robinson still out with a hamstring injury, in the same press conference Zimmer referred to Robinson as “the other guy,” said it “looks like” Captain Munnerlyn has won the starting job opposite Xavier Rhodes.

That leaves the strong safety spot between four or five guys and the middle linebacker competition between Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole as the remaining battles for starting spots.

“Honestly, it’s close,” Zimmer said about the final linebacker spot. “You know, I think they both do some good things, and the problem with that the other night was I think Jasper played eight plays or something like that because of what (the Arizona Cardinals) were doing offensively. So we’re going to get him in some of the substitution groups and get a better, longer evaluation of him.”

Brinkley, who has been getting more of the first-team reps throughout training camp, has played 34 snaps in two preseason games and registered five tackles. Cole has played 52 snaps and has six tackles, including one for a loss, between the two preseason games.

The safety position is much more wide open. Zimmer said he doesn’t have a timeframe in mind for deciding on the starter there.
“As soon as I’m sure with what we’re doing,” he said.

Robert Blanton, who opened training camp as the starter, hasn’t played yet in the preseason after injuring his hamstring three days into training camp.

Chris Crocker, acquired in the second week of training camp, didn’t play in the first preseason game and played only 18 snaps on Saturday night, despite starting the game. He had one tackle.

Andrew Sendejo also didn’t play in the first preseason because of a back injury suffered earlier in the offseason. He, too, played in 18 snaps and had three tackles Saturday night.

Jamarca Sanford missed the preseason opener with a back injury, too, but played 38 snaps against the Arizona Cardinals and registered three tackles.

Kurt Coleman, a free-agent acquisition this offseason, started the preseason opener and played 30 snaps in that game and 33 Saturday night, easily the most of any of the safeties in contention for the starting spot. He had four tackles and an interception in the opener but didn’t register a defensive statistic Saturday night.

“Crocker, when he was in there, didn’t get a lot of action. Coleman did some good things. He missed a tackle,” Zimmer said. “Sendejo did some good things when he was down close to the line of scrimmage. But you know part of is, for me, evaluating the safety it’s not when they’re down by the line of scrimmage, it’s when you’re back and they have to cover guys and they have to get in there. And we didn’t get in as many of those situations the other night as I would hope, whether it was because of what they were doing or because of what we were calling.”

Overall, however, Zimmer seemed relatively pleased with the progress his defense has made. He said last week the installation of new concepts was drawing to a close, but executing them in practice is a different evaluation than seeing how players respond against an opponent’s offense in a game situation.

“Honestly, it was in a lot of ways better than I thought. You never want them to score, but I think we played hard,” he said. “For the most part, we were in the right position most of the time. It wasn’t glaring mistakes like we didn’t know what we were doing. We were in position on three plays.

“The screen, instead of tackling him for a 1-yard gain, it ends up being about a 50-yard gain. The long pass on Xavier, he was in perfect position really and the guy out-jumped him for the ball. And then the goal line, the touchdown on fourth down, Chad was in great position and the guy out-jumped him for the ball. It’s our job as coaches to get him in position to make the plays and it’s their job when they get in those positions to make them.”

Although Greenway (and other defenders) admitted that the full defensive scheme isn’t being shown in the preseason, he said improvement is being made.

“Little more vanilla now, but it’s the stuff we do. Since Day 1 when we install them, that’s the stuff we’re doing in the games now. It’s just the communication and do it in-game and that kind of stuff,” Greenway said. “I think it was much better from Game 1 to Game 2.”

The execution in Game 3 of the preseason could determine the final two starting spots up for grabs.

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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