As Linval Joseph works his way back from a gunshot wound to the calf – he was sprinting off to the side for the first time during practice Monday – it is the spots behind the big nose tackle at middle linebacker and safety that remain somewhat unsettled.
Head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday he has an idea what he wants to do at middle linebacker, and if that follows form with the quarterback position, the starter for the first three preseason games, Jasper Brinkley, is likely to earn the starting spot.
Technically, Brinkley didn’t start in the third preseason game, but that was because the Vikings started in their nickel defense and their middle linebacker isn’t on the field for those situations. In fact, Brinkley hasn’t played as many snaps as the other linebacker vying for that spot, Audie Cole. While Brinkley has 61 snaps in the preseason, Cole has 85. But last week Zimmer said Brinkley is better communicating at that position and called the coverage and run-stopping aspects a close battle between the two.
“I have a pretty good idea on it right now,” Zimmer said about his starting middle linebacker, “but I’m going to just wait until after this week and see.”
The more open competition resides at strong safety next to starting free safety Harrison Smith.
The Vikings have started veteran Chris Crocker at strong safety the last two games, but he played only 10 snaps on Saturday night in Kansas City. Given that Crocker has been in Zimmer’s defensive system for the last seven years, the head coach knows what he can do.
“I’m comfortable with Chris as far as being able to do what we’re asking him to do. Part of it was, it was good for the other guys around to listen to him to see how he studies and he studied better for this game than he did in the first ball game,” Zimmer said. “He was really the only guy that I’ve had that came here. Those guys can say, ‘Hey, he’s just in a bad mood today or whatever.’ He can kind of smooth things over that way.”
Robert Blanton started training camp atop the depth chart at strong safety and he’s still listed there in the team’s weekly release, but a hamstring injury has severely hindered his opportunities. Saturday night was Blanton’s first preseason action and he saw plenty.
He took 34 snaps with the defense, more than any other safety.
“There are some technique things that we have to work with him, but he’s a smart guy, did some good things,” Zimmer said.
For the preseason, Kurt Coleman, acquired in free agency, leads the snap count. He has played in 89 snaps in the three games, but he’s also been the only one among those vying for that spot that has been active and healthy for all three games.
A starter last year, Jamarca Sanford has struggled with a low back injury for much of training camp and didn’t play in the first two preseason games. He injured his quadriceps muscle in the third preseason game on a special teams play before he had a chance to contribute on defense.
“It’s like everything when there are a bunch of guys fighting for a spot – the more you can do to get an evaluation the better it is. We don’t just evaluate on the games,” Zimmer said when asked about Sanford. “Now the games are a big part of it because we’re playing against somebody else and can they carry what we’re teaching them in practice to the game? But we evaluate all of these guys every single day. That’s the number one thing that we want to get out of training camp is getting the right 53 guys here on this football team and then trying to see if they can try to do what we’re kind of coaching them to do.”
Zimmer said Andrew Sendejo, who played in 29 snaps Saturday night but was unavailable for the preseason opener because of a hamstring injury, “did some good things” but also has some corrections to make.
“I have a little bit of clarity now, but we’re going to look at (the safeties) again this week,” Zimmer said. “It’ll be similar. We had a couple of guys get hurt so we didn’t get to see some of those guys.”
“Obviously, we’ve got to see him on the field, but from the rehab reports that we’ve been getting, he can do everything,” Zimmer said. “We’ll have to see what kind of condition he is in, his recall for the plays. He’s been out here and watching, but that doesn’t mean that he knows the plays and being able to execute them and what kind of blocking he does. These next 13 days will be important for him.”
Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.