Fresh off their third straight loss – and this one to divisional rival Green Bay – the Vikings might have been looking for any silver lining Monday. The league rankings provided a little salve to the wound when it showed the Vikings stilled maintained the league's top rush defense and the sixth defense overall.
However, that was of little consolation to the players in the secondary, who were torched for 347 passing yards at the arm of Packers quarterback Brett Favre Sunday in Metrodome.
But several of the defenders Viking Update talked to Monday all said it was a matter of cleaning up little things.
"I think it's just some stuff we need to do, as far as just tuning up some of the small things, as far as zone and man coverage – just technique-wise. Other than that, there's not much you can really do," said cornerback Ronyell Whitaker. "It's just, like I said, some of the small stuff. Like when you're in bump and run, make sure you stay on the line and play bump and run and not backing up and giving a guy a little bit of room to run a slant or whatever type of route he wants to get into. You really want to get your hands on him. In the zone, it's just doing what we do and reading the quarterback and playing what we play."
It was no coincidence that Whitaker used the slant route as an example. It was a slant by Green Bay receiver Donald Driver in the last two minutes of the first half that might have been the most damaging play to the Vikings Sunday. They had just overcome a 10-0 deficit and taken a 14-10 lead when Driver ran a slant and turned it upfield after receiving the ball for an 82-yard touchdown.
Whitaker, cornerback Cedric Griffin and safety Dwight Smith all were hesitant to say that Green Bay's passing success, or even the success of the New England Patriots two weeks prior, was the result of missed assignments.
"It ain't really missed assignments as just being a yard-and-a-half off of where you're supposed to be," said Smith, who is a veteran of the Vikings' defensive scheme, having played it in Tampa Bay before he was acquired by Minnesota this year after spending a season with the New Orleans Saints. "When you're playing against a Brett Favre or a Tom Brady, a yard-and-a-half can mean a mile. You seen catches (Sunday) where Donald Driver was right behind a defender or some guy is not right behind. When some guy is not where he's supposed to be, them catches happen."
While Smith knows the defensive scheme well, he also knows, like every defense, it has vulnerabilities.
"We play a defense where good quarterbacks are going to find holes, but we still have opportunities within this defense – the New England game and Green Bay game – where we had third downs where we could get off," Smith said. "It has nothing to do with their scheme or anything, it's us not being in the position we're supposed to be in. I still believe in this defense and I still feel like when we're on our game, we can shut anybody down, but that's what we have to do on our side of the ball. We have to stop worrying so much about what's going on on the other side of the ball and get back to detailing our work."
Third-down conversions were a major issue against Green Bay. The Packers converted 47 percent of their third downs, and many of those were third-and-long situations, as Minnesota's rush defense lived up to its top billing.
Players said there were a variety of reasons for the Packers' third-down successes.
"Different players in different situations. You'd probably have to go and ask each person what happened on the third downs," Griffin said. "We just haven't been executing on third downs right now. We'll get it fixed in practice."
At no time was the Vikings' third-down futility more evident than on the Packers' first scoring drive of the game. They were facing third-and-8 when Favre completed a 27-yard pass to Driver in the middle of the field, and that scenario would play itself out on the next two third-down situations as well. Third-and-10 and Driver got free for a 22-yard reception, and third-and-7 and Driver caught a 20-yard pass to put the Packers in the red zone and in position for a field goal and the first points of the game.
Early on, Driver was consistently exposing the deep middle part of the field, but Whitaker wasn't ready to concede that the Vikings' pass defense was most vulnerable there.
"It's different defenses for different offenses that we think they're going to run or different plays we think they're going to run. It just happened to be that they dialed up a good play in the defense that we think that they're going to run something different, and they run something else. So you just can't really do too much about that," Whitaker said.
The fact that Driver had 191 yards on six receptions – a 31.8-yard average – might have surprised the Vikings, but the fact that the Packers and Patriots tested them with the passing game was expected.
"Teams aren't going to test us running the ball. I think we're number one against the run. I think teams are going to attack us in the air," said cornerback Antoine Winfield.
Winfield was asked if that would make it easier on the defense.
"It should, but it hasn't," he said. "Favre had some success (Sunday). We played a lot of zone, and at times he just pretty much picked us apart."
Favre wasn't the only one. Another future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady, threw for 372 yards and four touchdowns against the Vikings on Oct. 30. While the defensive backs were obviously disappointed with giving up that much yardage, they also acknowledged the talent in those two quarterbacks.
"When you've got two quarterbacks like that, you've got to think. Both of them are very smart," Whitaker said. "You've got Brady, who's a very smart quarterback. You've got of course Brett Favre, who's a future Hall of Famer. He's able to read defenses and know when the blitz is coming and when it's not coming and what's the soft part of the zone. Guys like that, especially Brett Favre, he's seen it all. He's seen any type of defense you run at him. He's seen it before, so he knows how to attack it. That's just what he did."
While defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin said the Patriots' way of exposing the defense was spreading out the offense with an empty backfield, Winfield said the two teams' game plans were somewhat similar, but the Vikings' approach to them differed.
"We put some pressure on (the Patriots) in the second half of the game, but (Sunday) we played a lot of zone thinking that Favre was going to throw interceptions like he usually does, but we didn't come up with them," Winfield said.
Instead, it was the second game in three weeks that the Vikings defense allowed more than 340 yards passing, sending the defense back to the practice field with much to work on.
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