If timing is everything, now is the time for the Minnesota Vikings to figure out their situation at safety.
Since Harrison Smith’s arrival to the Vikings, he has played alongside Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton as the “other” safety in the lineup. He will experience another change on Sunday, as Antone Exum is expected to get his first start, according to a source.
It might be the perfect time to figure out the future of the position next to Smith.
“It doesn’t really affect me. I’ve practiced – going back to when I first got here – you end up practicing with everyone,” Smith said. “You know everybody. Just as long as you both communicate, we’ve all got faith in everybody.
“We just kind of play our role in the defense and make sure that we’re aligned right and ready to go and then we’ll just play ball. There’s nothing that changes.”
Expect, perhaps, the effectiveness of the defense. Sendejo has been touted as the most consistent of the three current options. Blanton has been called out at times for trying to do too much. Exum was given a public assessment last month that wasn’t all that favorable.
“He’s a possibility if he could ever figure out what to do. Once he figures out what to do, he can be a part of that discussion,” Zimmer said in September when asked if Exum was a possibility as a starter.
With his opportunity apparently in front of him Sunday, Exum said those comments from Zimmer a month ago give him something to prove.
“Anytime you’re not a starter, I would think if you want to be a good player there has to be some motivation to get better. You’re obviously not doing something right,” he said. “That’s just where I’ve tried to correct those mistakes. I heard the comments. I don’t take it personally. I think he’s just trying to make me the best player I can be.”
So why is this the right time to find out if Exum can perform? For starters, he’s saying all the right things now as follow-ups to Zimmer’s assessment a month ago. Sendejo is questionable with a knee injury. And Blanton was one of the players out of position in a tide-turning 72-yard touchdown run from Denver running back Ronnie Hillman.
The last two weeks, facing Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning, would have put a first-time starter like Exum in a bad position. This week, while Alex Smith is a capable starter, he isn’t elite.
The Vikings are facing a five-game stretch in which they might be favored in every game and the highest-rated quarterback they face is Oakland’s Derek Carr, who has a 93.9 passer rating, 12th in the NFL among quarterbacks who have played at least 50 percent of the snaps. After Smith, the 15th-rated QB at 88.1, it’s Matthew Stafford (28th, 74.8), Jay Cutler (17th, 85.4), Nick Foles (23rd, 77.6) and then Carr.
Getting their last line of defense rote during that time is critical.
“We expect (the safeties) to know the scheme,” Zimmer said about developing safeties. “… They know what to do most of the time, but it’s more about when things happen that maybe they haven’t seen or this motion or that motion – I’m talking specifically safeties – or this split is a little bit different so we have to play it a little different way. It’s more about the intricacies. They all know the calls and what to do with the coverages and things like that. … It’s good for them to get on the cards with the scout team because now you kind of see just athletic ability. You don’t see (them) thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to make a check here.’”
Smith has dealt with plenty of different bodies next to him at safety. In the last year, it’s been a rotation between Sendejo and his former Notre Dame teammate Blanton. Now it’s likely to be Exum getting his first crack.
“Once the game comes around, it’s kind of hard to tell people don’t get too hyped,” Smith said. “But those are things after a few games that you start to learn, how to carry yourself and how to think throughout a game instead of getting so worked up that things feel different than when you watched it on film, but it’s really just the same. For whatever reason, you can see it different. You just have to slow things down.”
That might be easier now during the five-game stretch of quarterbacks on the horizon. After Smith, Stafford, Cutler, Foles and Carr, the task gets much more imposing.
It’s Aaron Rodgers twice. The same Rodgers that has a 10-4 record against the Vikings, is the second-rated quarterback in the NFL at 117.4, is tied for first in touchdown passes (13) and has only two interceptions. And, yes, the Vikings also face Cutler twice, but the rest of the November and December schedule will provide no lasting holidays.
Matt Ryan is after Rodgers, and Ryan’s combination of a running game and receiving weapons like Julio Jones has him ranked a surprisingly low 13th in quarterback rating (92.9) while he is ninth in touchdowns (8) and has four interceptions.
Russell Wilson is 10th in passer rating (99.1), 18th in touchdowns (6) and has only three interceptions.
Carson Palmer has won 17 of his last 20 starts, is fourth in passer rating (114), tied for first in touchdowns (13) and also has only three interceptions.
And, finally, sandwiched in between Cutler and the season finale against Rodgers is Eli Manning, who is eighth in passer rating (100.1), fifth in touchdown tosses (10) and, like Rodgers, has only two interceptions.
Five the Vikings’ seven final games feature quarterbacks in the top half of the league’s passer rating and three games against two quarterbacks – Rodgers and Palmer – who lead the NFL with 13 touchdown passes already.
If Sunday is the start of a long stretch of starts for Exum, his assignments better be covered in the next month because the final two months will provide plenty of balls in the air he will need to keep in front of him.
Exum says he has gotten much better with the nuances of the position in Zimmer’s defense, and defined nuances this way:
“You might not screw up the whole coverage but something within the coverage once the ball is snapped, maybe just weaving to one side or having a certain foot up,” he said. “This is a very detail-oriented defense so you have to be sharp on those things.”
While Zimmer said it’s only “sometimes” that he feels better about what Exum is doing in practice, defensive coordinator George Edwards gave the safety a positive progress report.
“He’s come a long way and he’s doing a lot better job with the communication. He’s doing a lot better job with the awareness,” Edwards said. “So he’s doing a good job paying attention to the details, asking good questions, working on what we’re trying to do from a week-to-week game plan, and we’re preparing him like everybody else to get out there and compete and try to use his skillset to help us.”
- After Adrian Peterson reached the top speed of any running back in Week 4 during his 48-yard touchdown run against the Denver Broncos, his burst appears to be back. “It looks good to me,” Zimmer said. “Norv (Turner) and I talk about it all the time when we see him running the football. It’s pretty special.”
- Speaking of Peterson, can we now hope that the reporter questions cease when it comes to asking him if he is the LeBron James or Michael Jordan of the NFL. It’s a pointless line of questioning that makes no sense in this crotchety old mind.
- If the Vikings’ passing game is ever going to take off, the Chiefs game should be the one for it. The Vikings have the 32nd-ranked passing offense but the Chiefs have the 27th-ranked passing defense. Of course, as Mike Wallace pointed out, if the Vikings have the lead or are close, their signature remains Peterson.
- According to a fun poll of his teammates conducted by Brian Robison for Vikings.com, the teammates players would most want to date their sister are Teddy Bridgewater and Marcus Sherels. The teammate they don’t want dating their sister: Everson Griffen.
- The Vikings will have some hard roster decisions to make in the coming weeks. CB Josh Robinson is eligible to come off the reserve/physically unable to perform list next week and John Sullivan is eligible to start practicing in three weeks. If Robinson returns to the 53-man roster soon, who gets released, traded or placed on season-ending injured reserve?