For years, the Minnesota Vikings’ pass defense was somewhere between sup-par and comical. These days, the comedy act is in the past.
Last year, despite the struggles of Josh Robinson and Captain Munnerlyn, and an injury to Robert Blanton, the Vikings had enough in Mike Zimmer’s scheme and instruction to patch it together for a surprising No. 7 ranking. This year, the talent is better, the experience in the system should be rote, and the expectations are even higher.
The influx of talent, from veteran Terence Newman to rookie Trae Waynes, has pushed Robinson to an afterthought as he has spent all of the preseason on the physically unable to perform list and Munnerlyn from a 16-game starter to fighting for a role as a nickel cornerback. As much as it might burn those two to consider their future, for the Vikings it’s a good thing to not have to push Robinson back too soon – he might not even have much of a contributing role whenever that happens – or Munnerlyn into playing 66 snaps a game or 98 percent of the snaps throughout the course of the year, as he did in 2014.
Zimmer is pushing forward, rightfully unwilling to grandfather a player into a starting spot from one year to the next. He knows the vision he has and if players don’t fit it, so be it.
But there is an interesting dynamic forming among the cornerbacks. There is the veteran Newman, with six years of experience in Zimmer’s defensive scheme and double that in the NFL, and there is Waynes, with no NFL experience but plenty of potential. Both should have big roles for the Vikings this year, and Newman’s savvy is transferring to the young guys.
“He works with all of them. He talks to all of them about a lot of different things,” Zimmer said. “… There was a route last week that he was on (Mike) Wallace and he got in the position that I didn’t like him and I said, ‘Why were you doing that?’ He said, ‘Well, he raised up a little bit as he was running down the field.’ I have to replay the tape to see that and see that and see that, and he can see it while the play is happening. I said, ‘Did you tell Wallace that?’ And he said, ‘Not yet.’ I said, ‘Make sure you go over and tell him.’ But he sees things like that.”
In training camp, Newman talked about how he got to that point in the league, although he felt he was a solid diagnostician early in his career, too. With each step a receiver takes, he further evaluates the remaining route options.
Several times since the start of training camp Newman has cut on a route before Wallace did, either making an easy pass deflection or interception. At times, it appears uncanny, despite Newman getting burned for a 40-yard reception by rookie Amari Cooper last weekend.
“Terence Newman is definitely the smartest guy on our defense and that’s because of longevity. When you play for so long, there’s only so many combinations you can run in football and he’s a really, really smart player,” Wallace said. “He knows when one guy goes this way somebody is obviously coming back from this way or that way. However the defense does it, he does a really good job and he’s a smart player. I think he’s going to be a big help to us.”
Newman has helped Wallace with “tells” the veteran receiver is still giving away when running routes. But Newman’s route recognition and experience with Zimmer’s defense should help more than just the receivers. If he can take a physically gifted yet technique-raw Waynes and combine with Zimmer to shape the rookie into a technician, it could mean the end of the woeful pass defense in Minnesota for years to come, well beyond whenever Newman – the 13-year veteran and soon-to-be 37-year-old – hangs up the cleats.
Zimmer said “it’s way too early” to tell how much of Newman is rubbing off on Waynes.
“Hopefully a year from now,” Zimmer said. “All guys are different. They all learn differently, how much they can comprehend at one time. Right now, some of these young guys are just trying to figure out what I do, let alone what they do as far as lining up.”
Like Rhodes last year, when it was his first year in Zimmer’s system, perhaps no one has received as much guidance this year from Zimmer (and Newman) as Waynes. From pre-snap positioning to hand placement to assignments, there is plenty for Waynes to learn.
It’s impossible to say how long it will take before the end product is as quality as Rhodes became last year, but Zimmer has been intent on getting Waynes plenty of work in the preseason. In each of the first four preseason game, Waynes has been top-six among snap counts on the Vikings defense.
Entering Saturday’s game against the Dallas Cowboys, who gave Zimmer his first shot under Bill Parcells, the Vikings were ranked fifth in pass yards allowed per game, fourth in yards per passing play and fifth in interception rate.
To date, neither Newman nor Waynes has had a taste of the interceptions, but getting the rookie as much experience as possible in the preseason should only help, especially with the sideline tutorials being offered by Zimmer and Newman.
Yet, Waynes is still very much a work in progress.
“He’s been pretty good, but he plays the hardest position, I would think, besides quarterback to come in and play,” Wallace said of Waynes. “Wide receiver is kind of tough, but not nearly as tough as coming in and playing cornerback. You’re going against some of the best guys in the world. When you go against those guys, it’s going to be a learning curve, and the way he plays it’s going to be tough because he’s more of a shadow guy than an hands-on guy, I would think, from what I’ve seen. But he’s going to come along and I think he’s going to make some big plays for us as the year goes.”
Either way, it’s good have Newman in the rookie’s corner.
Sunday slant: Newman a valued mentor
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