With all the shuffling of the secondary, the Minnesota Vikings managed to hold it together on Thursday night. That might not sound like a glowing endorsement for a team that considers itself playoff worthy, but given the dire injury situation, expecting much against the top offense in the NFL more might have been wishful optimism.
In the defensive backfield alone, the shuffling of players was significant. Harrison Smith, one of the few defensive players on the team to garner top-10 voting among fans for the Pro Bowl, was out. So was the other starting safety, Andrew Sendejo. So was recent fill-in starter Antone Exum, who was placed on injured reserve.
Without their top three safeties, Mike Zimmer elected to call up undrafted rookie Anthony Harris from the practice squad and start him in front of former starter Robert Blanton and – the most significant move of all – put veteran cornerback Terence Newman at the other safety, giving rookie cornerback Trae Waynes the chance to make his first start.
“For the most part, he did pretty good,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Newman. “There was one play that he kind of bit up on a little bit, but for the most part he lined up in the right place. Terence understands the calls and the checks pretty good so I thought he did OK.”
To recap, only one of usual starters, cornerback Xavier Rhodes, in the defensive backfield was in the same position he usually is. Newman was making his first start at safety, Harris was not only playing in his first NFL game but starting, and Waynes was making his first NFL starts after being used sparingly before injuries started to ravage the secondary in the last month.
“We had a mistake. It wasn’t just (Waynes) on the one that they caught on the sideline there. It was kind of a combination mistake of a couple guys,” Zimmer said. “I thought he competed well last night. The play that he broke up at the end of the ballgame was one that they completed on him earlier in the game. That was a big play for him to go in there because Larry Fitzgerald is a great catch guy and for him to get that ball out was huge. He did some good things.”
The big mistake Zimmer referenced came in the third quarter when the Cardinals had a bunch formation of wide receivers to the right side of the field. Waynes, linebacker Eric Kendricks and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn all followed receiver Jaron Brown on an inside route, leaving Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd wide open on the outside. Palmer went to Floyd, who made the catch and had the well-built Fitzgerald in front of him to block.
When Fitzgerald trucked rookie safety Anthony Harris downfield, Floyd had clear sailing for a 42-yard touchdown that gave the Cardinals a 17-10 lead. Three of the four defenders closest to Floyd – Waynes, Kenricks and Harris – on his way to the end zone were all rookies.
“Yeah, we screwed it up,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want to get too complicated and tell too many things, but based on splits, alignments, formations, different things, sometimes you have different combinations of the coverage that is called. We played one combination and it was not what we should have done so that’s why the guy was outside by himself – actually, two guys were outside by themselves on that play.”
It was a big, game-changing mistake, but overall Zimmer said the communication in the secondary with so many young players getting get their first extensive action, and Newman playing safety, was “pretty good.”
“Obviously you’re trying to put together a game plan that your players can execute. That’s the number one most important thing,” Zimmer said. “Then I think that they executed, and this is more of a credit to them than the coaches by any stretch, they were able, for the most part, to execute the things, get the communication amongst a lot of different guys pretty good.”
After the game, and again the day after the game, Zimmer said he isn’t into moral victories, but he was happy the way the veterans took the challenge to help the rookies, and the way the rookies battled under difficult circumstances.
“We didn’t do enough things to win the football game. We played with the heart and the desire and the fight, all those things that I want, but we turned the ball over three times,” Zimmer said. “We dropped an interception. We made an interception and were offsides. You’re not going to be able to do that (against) a good football team.”