Harrison Smith remains the workhorse of the Minnesota Vikings defense. The safety spot next to him remains the Trojan Horse, waiting to see which player emerges from the shell. So far, it remains a mystery.
Through four games, Smith has played in every snap in three games, missing only six snaps at the end of the San Diego Chargers game to give others some experience. But while Smith holds down the free safety spot with hard-hitting aplomb, for the second straight year in Mike Zimmer’s defense, the strong safety spot hasn’t found a consistent, healthy option.
Robert Blanton was the preseason option, but Andrew Sendejo was the regular-season starter … until a shoulder injury took him out of action. Antone Exum offers some possibilities, but Zimmer has indicated he isn’t consistent enough in practice to earn a shot.
“I know Coach Zim has talked about it – we’re trying to find a solution at that position next to Harrison,” general manager Rick Spielman said. “Sendejo has played well before he was injured. Blanton had some of his – struggled this last week but has played well for us in the past as he continues to progress.”
Blanton has been caught out of position several times in his part-time duty this year. The latest happened Sunday when he took a bad angle toward Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman on his 72-yard touchdown run. Blanton approached Hillman too shallow and the running back ran past him untouched for a touchdown that put the Broncos up 10-0 in what ended a 23-20 loss for the Vikings.
“We didn't execute it,” Zimmer said of that play. “I don't necessarily think it was the best call at that particular time, but we did not execute. We had about one, two, three, four, five guys that did not execute.”
Asked if Blanton was one of the guys out of position, Zimmer said, “It was five guys, there's only 11 out there, so.”
But the options at safety opposite Smith are limited. Sendejo has been the most consistent, but he missed the Broncos game with a knee injury. Exum has been used regularly on special teams but has played only six snaps on defense in mop-up duty for Smith.
The Vikings also have two safeties on their practice squad that could eventually get a look – undrafted Anthony Harris and recently acquired Brock Vereen, who was released by the Chicago Bears. Vereen was part of the Vikings’ “top 30” predraft visit in 2014 and played at the University of Minnesota before that.
“He played nickel, he played some safety. A very good football player. When the opportunity came, when he was released by Chicago, we didn’t have a spot on the 53, but we went at him pretty hard to try to bring him back here,” Spielman said, calling Vereen a “tough, hard-nosed, passionate football player.”
In a couple practices this week, younger players were given more reps, Spielman said, before the roster was given time off during the bye week.
“We’re bringing Anthony Harris along, too. I know the coaches are evaluating all our personnel,” Spielman said. “This is a great week to look at who we have. Coach Zim said it best: Who can I trust to put out there on the field to get the job done? He said those are the guys that I’m going to play. We have a group of 53 guys, we have a 10-man practice squad and our coaches are looking at what we have and what guys are going to give us the best opportunity to win each week.”