NFL Nation: Harrison Smith

Patriots vs. Vikings preview

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
8:00
AM ET
Update: The Vikings have deactivated Adrian Peterson for Sunday’s game following Friday's indictment by a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

The Minnesota Vikings are coming off their biggest road win in five seasons, while the New England Patriots are trying to avoid an 0-2 start after a 13-point defeat on the road last week. Just like everyone predicted, right?

In a matchup that pits Patriots coach Bill Belichick against a couple of his old foes from the AFC -- Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner -- the Vikings will try to build on their surprising start in their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday. Zimmer's game plan in Cincinnati last year forced Patriots quarterback Tom Brady into his worst game of the season, and Zimmer will hope to recreate the performance with a Vikings defense that isn't as experienced as what he had with the Bengals.

ESPN Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss discuss this week's matchup.

Ben Goessling: Mike, the Vikings sacked Rams quarterbacks five times Sunday. After a pretty poor week for the Patriots' offensive line against the Dolphins -- a team whose defensive coordinator is a disciple of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer -- do you think protecting Brady is going to be a lingering issue this week?

Mike Reiss: Yes, Ben, there is no doubt about that. One thing I believe should help the Patriots is that while the Vikings' defensive line is solid, I don't believe it is at the same level as Miami's. Specifically, the Patriots won't be seeing the same type of speed rush from Cameron Wake off the defensive left side, which they just couldn't handle. There's only a few like Wake in the NFL. The Patriots are still figuring out their best combination up front, and that will be one of the most closely watched storylines from a New England perspective. One thing I'm sure Patriots followers would be interested to hear is how Matt Cassel, the New England backup from 2005-08, is performing.

Goessling: So far, Cassel has been solid, though he didn't have to take many chances in the Vikings' win against the Rams last week. He only attempted three passes of more than 10 yards, and he was able to hit a number of screen passes to running backs, receivers and even tight end Rhett Ellison. But Cassel hit Greg Jennings on a nice post play and threw a couple of touchdown passes off play-action. The hope is Cassel can be solid enough to keep the Vikings relevant and give them more time to develop Teddy Bridgewater; ultimately, he is the future of this team, but for now, Cassel is buying the Vikings time before they turn things over to Bridgewater. And if they're able to win enough games with Cassel, who knows? He could turn out to be the starter all season.

Belichick will get to face one of his old foes from the AFC in Turner on Sunday; how have the Patriots typically matched up against Turner teams, and how do you expect their defense will handle the Vikings on Sunday, after the Vikings showed off a number of weapons last week against the Rams?

Reiss: When the Patriots have faced a Turner-coordinated offense, Belichick has touched on the vertical nature of the passing game. He also said earlier this week that, "You have to be able to stop the running game and stop '12 personnel' [1 back, 2 tight ends]." The Patriots' biggest issues in the opener were poor fits in the run game (191 yards allowed). I wouldn't be surprised if we see Darrelle Revis shadow Cordarrelle Patterson after Revis almost exclusively played the left side in the opener.

In last year's draft, the Patriots traded the No. 29 pick to Minnesota for Patterson and received second-, third-, fourth- and seventh-round picks in return. The Patriots turned those picks into linebacker Jamie Collins, cornerback Logan Ryan, receiver Josh Boyce and used the seventh to trade for running back LeGarrette Blount (now in Pittsburgh). One year later, how do you assess that deal from a Minnesota perspective?

Goessling: I can't imagine the Vikings have any regrets about it. As much as they could have used some of those picks to address their defensive depth issues, they've got a budding star in Patterson. He's not only filled the role vacated by Percy Harvin in the Vikings' offense, he's done it without any of the questions surrounding Harvin's durability and temperament. Patterson isn't quite as strong or shifty, but he's taller, a more natural outside receiver and his ability to hit holes is as good as you'll find anywhere. He's already become a focal point in the Vikings' offense, and I imagine that will only continue. The Vikings use him in enough different ways that I think it would be hard to completely shut him down with Revis, though I'm sure Belichick will come up with something to try and fence him in.

Speaking of defensive game plans, the Bengals' defense under Zimmer had a good one to frustrate Brady last season, and Dolphins defensive coordinator Kevin Coyne (a Zimmer disciple) had success against the Patriots last week, of course. We've talked a little bit about the pass rush already, but what else did Zimmer dial up in that game to force Brady into one of his worst days of the season, and do you think he can do it again this weekend?

Reiss: The main things I remember about Zimmer's plan last season was the ability to hurry Brady with the standard four rushers early (Geno Atkins was a beast inside), and then bringing out the different blitz packages on third down and more obvious passing situations. One thing, in particular, is the double A-gap blitz right up the middle. Even if you don't bring those extra two rushers on a blitz, by showing the look, it forces the offensive line to communicate and make sure they are all seeing the same thing in terms of who is coming, who isn't and who to block. The Patriots' offensive line crumbled in the third quarter against the Dolphins last week, and I'd imagine the Vikings watched that tape and are salivating at the possibilities of frustrating Brady. At the same time, I think the Patriots are better than they showed, and we could see some personnel changes in the middle with rookie center Bryan Stork in the mix.

Defensively for the Vikings, tell us more about where and how they put stress on the opposition.

Goessling: You touched on it a little bit: The big key to it is still the creativity Zimmer shows in his blitz packages. He doesn't bring extra pressure all that often, in the grand scheme of things (he only blitzed eight times last week), but he'll show enough blitz looks, and send pass-rushers from enough different spots, that he keeps you on your toes. You'll often see him show a seven- or eight-man front, only to have several players drop back into coverage. The problem is guessing which players it will be; the Vikings have some flexibility with their personnel, like linebacker Anthony Barr, defensive end Everson Griffen and safety Harrison Smith. The Vikings' secondary depth still concerns me, and we'll see whether Brady can exploit it this week, but this Vikings' defense won't be as big of a pushover as last season's unit was.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- After nearly four months of evaluation, a handful of injuries and the release of two veterans over the weekend, the Minnesota Vikings still apparently haven't settled on a starting safety opposite Harrison Smith -- at least not one coach Mike Zimmer was comfortable sharing on Monday.

"I don't know yet," Zimmer said when asked who will start next to Smith in the Vikings' regular-season opener against St. Louis on Sunday. "We'll see."

Robert Blanton has been atop the depth chart since the Vikings released their first one during training camp, and seems like the logical pick to start next to his former Notre Dame teammate. Blanton missed part of training camp with a hamstring injury, but came back before the Vikings' third preseason game against Kansas City and seems healthy now.

"He's a smart guy," Zimmer said. "Sometimes when you make the transition from corner to safety (as Blanton did), it takes those guys a while, but he's a smart guy. You have a little bit more athletic ability, usually."

Smith said he won't be affected in any major way by who starts next to him on Sunday, and was coy when asked if he knew who the starter would be. It seemed like Smith's partner might be 34-year-old Chris Crocker, who came out of retirement for a third consecutive year to play for Zimmer and started a pair of games next to Smith in training camp.

The Vikings, however, released Crocker on Saturday, along with Kurt Coleman, when they concluded they "had a lot of the same guys," as Zimmer put it.

However short his time was with the Vikings, though, Crocker helped Smith's development in the team's defense.

"He was like having a coach in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the field," Smith said. "In between plays, he'd say, 'Hey, Harry, watch out for this coming up here,' and he was right most of the time. Even though he was only here for a little bit, I learned a ton from that guy.

"Just having that time with Crocker was good. I kind of had Antoine (Winfield) to look to when I was a rookie, just to see how a pro prepares. I never really had a safety to look at who was an old, old guy -- I called him the 'old man' every day. He kind of showed me again what it was like to be a professional and to really understand the game."

Should the Vikings start Blanton on Sunday, his experience in coverage will likely be a big part of the reason he's got the job. The Vikings will put their safeties in man coverage much more often than they did in their old regime, and Blanton seemed to separate himself from competition during the team's OTAs and minicamp because of his coverage skills.

"It's going to be fun for us (safeties)," Smith said. "We get to do pretty much everything, all levels of the defense: down near the line, dropping down like linebackers, playing deep, covering man-to-man. We get to do pretty much everything."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- A few observations from the Minnesota Vikings' practice on Wednesday afternoon:
  • With Chad Greenway sitting out of team drills because of an injury to his right wrist, Michael Mauti got most of the work with the first team in Greenway's spot. Greenway had a brace on his wrist, but said he hoped to be back at practice on Thursday. The linebacker also will be in charge of the Vikings' huddle this season, coach Mike Zimmer confirmed on Wednesday; the job typically falls to a middle linebacker, but since Jasper Brinkley and Audie Cole aren't likely to be on the field on passing downs, the Vikings gave the job of relaying defensive calls to Greenway because he figures to be on the field most of the time.
  • The Vikings continued looking at several safeties next to Harrison Smith, giving Robert Blanton, Chris Crocker and Kurt Coleman work with the first team on Wednesday. They'll continue their audition process on Saturday night in Kansas City, with Blanton -- who missed the Vikings' first two preseason games because of a hamstring injury -- receiving a fair share of the work so the Vikings can evaluate him.
  • On a day where the Vikings spent plenty of time with their scout teams on the field, Christian Ponder got much of the work at quarterback, facing the first-team defense for good chunks of the practice. Ponder threw one interception, when Harrison Smith picked off a pass underthrown into double coverage, but made some nice throws the rest of the day. "I think that Christian has improved a lot since we have had him," Zimmer said. "I still like a lot of things that he does, his athletic ability, his intelligence. I keep seeing that he doesn’t have a good arm -- that’s wrong, too. He’s got a good arm. He throws the ball beautifully, he just didn’t make as many plays during the OTAs as some of the other guys did."
  • As the Vikings get closer to special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer's suspension at the beginning of the regular season, interim special-teams coach Joe Marciano has spent his time working with Priefer and assistant special-teams coach Ryan Ficken to mold his system into the Vikings' way of doing things. "His system and Mike's system are very similar," Zimmer said. "He’s obviously in all the meetings and everything in with Mike all the time. He’s trying to learn the same terminology that Mike is using that so when we do go to St. Louis (for the season opener) it’s all the same."
  • Wide receiver Kain Colter left with trainer Eric Sugarman in the middle of practice, and appeared to have an injury to his right hand.

W2W4: Minnesota Vikings

August, 16, 2014
Aug 16
12:00
PM ET
The Minnesota Vikings (1-0) and Arizona Cardinals (1-0) square off for their second preseason game on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

1. Starters to play more: Coach Mike Zimmer said quarterback Matt Cassel "has a chance" to play the entire first half on Saturday night, which would suggest the Vikings plan to give their first-team offense much more playing time than they saw last Friday against Oakland. Zimmer said this week he's never placed as much importance on the third preseason game as many seem to do, so it's possible the Vikings treat this week's game as more of a dress rehearsal than next Saturday's game against Kansas City. Adrian Peterson still won't play, but if Cassel -- who seems like the favorite to win the Vikings' quarterback job -- gets two quarters of work with the first-team offense, we'll get a good sense of how he's handling offensive coordinator Norv Turner's scheme against one of the league's best defenses.

2. Safety dance: The Vikings are still trying to sort out a crowded competition for the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith, and Zimmer said he wants to take a long look at four veterans on Saturday night: Chris Crocker, Andrew Sendejo, Jamarca Sanford and Kurt Coleman. With Robert Blanton still out because of a hamstring injury, and rookie Antone Exum having played 60 snaps last week, it stands to reason the Vikings will use the four safeties for much of the night on Saturday. It's hard to envision a scenario where all four veterans are on the roster, and Zimmer said he's hoping Saturday's game will help the Vikings establish a pecking order at the position. That pecking order could have some important consequences for a number of players.

3. Cleaning up pass protection: Zimmer wasn't happy with the Vikings' pass protection last week, after the Raiders sacked the Vikings' quarterbacks six times and Teddy Bridgewater nearly lost a fumble deep in Raiders territory. The Vikings spent plenty of time focusing on protection schemes this week in practice, and though some of the blitz pickup work from their running backs looked better, the linemen were responsible for many of the sacks anyway -- especially the three that came late in the game on Christian Ponder. Particularly from younger players like David Yankey and Antonio Richardson, the Vikings will be looking for better results this week.

Vikings Camp Report: Day 15

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
7:30
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • The Vikings will still be without safety Robert Blanton because of a hamstring injury on Saturday night against the Arizona Cardinals, and coach Mike Zimmer wants to use the exhibition game to get a long look at four safeties in particular: Chris Crocker, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Kurt Coleman. It seems reasonable to conclude those four are the ones receiving the strongest consideration to start next to Harrison Smith (at least until Blanton comes back), and Zimmer said he hopes Saturday's game will help sort out the depth chart. "Right now, I am looking for the other safety. That is why I want to play these guys quite a bit this week. I want to see how it goes from there and then try to figure out the rest of the pecking order as we get going. Hopefully, this will be a big week for those safeties."
  • Injuries are also affecting the Vikings' plans at the cornerback spot opposite Xavier Rhodes, where the Vikings have indicated Captain Munnerlyn and Josh Robinson are sharing the No. 1 spot on their recent depth charts. That seems a bit unnecessary, especially since Munnerlyn has been getting many of the first-team snaps in the base defense, but Robinson has been playing outside when Munnerlyn slides into the slot in nickel, and a third cornerback is essentially a starter in the NFL these days, anyway. Robinson, though, was out of practice with a lingering hamstring injury again on Thursday, and Zimmer indicated that's making it tough for him to nail down a spot. "Well, it’s hard to make the club in the tub," Zimmer said when asked if Munnerlyn was entrenched at the other cornerback spot. "I guess that would be a yes. I don’t know if he’s entrenched, but if you’re not going out there and proving it every single day and proving it in the games then it’s hard to know."
  • Zimmer has talked at various points about the advice he picked up from Bill Parcells when he was the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator for four seasons under the Hall of Fame coach. He said on Thursday he was planning an end-of-training-camp call to check in with Parcells and talk about the Vikings at the end of his first camp as the head coach. "I had Coach Parcells' number on my phone today but I didn’t push the button," Zimmer said. "I plan on calling either tonight or tomorrow, just to talk about things."
  • They've become good friends after two years of rooming together at training camp, and Cordarrelle Patterson went out of his way -- literally -- to stick up for Adam Thielen during a drill on Thursday. Both receivers were returning mock kickoffs, starting their runback with a ball in their hands as defenders tried to strip it away. Patterson was waiting in line for his turn when he thought players were trying to rip the ball away from Thielen a little too forcefully. "Get your hands off him," Patterson snapped. "That's a receiver. You don't touch my receivers like that."
  • In the final autograph session of training camp, things got a bit out of hand. Fans were leaning against a chain link fence to get Teddy Bridgewater’s autograph when it collapsed, leaving a row of kids trying to pick themselves up and stay in line for Bridgewater’s signature. St. Paul Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin has a fantastic photo of the scene here.
  • The Vikings will head back to the Twin Cities on Friday after a closed walk-through on Friday; Zimmer said the Vikings will go through a mock game, working through different situations and making sure they have the correct substitution packages for those situations. Then, they'll be back at the team facility in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, after Saturday's game. Asked how he thought his first camp went, Zimmer said, "I think it was productive. We were able to come out and work efficiently, work quickly, move to different spots. Hopefully I learned something every day about this team, but they haven’t disappointed me. They have been very willing to do whatever. I heard someone say, 'Buy in;' I guess, maybe. There hasn’t been any complaining, whether that is buying in or not. In training camp there is usually some complaining. I like this team; they are good guys and they work real hard. As long as we play together as a team, we play real hard, we do the things that we are trying to coach them to do, then we have a chance to be a good football team."
MANKATO, Minn -- Though it might be technically true, it's probably not accurate, in the spirit of Chris Crocker's relationship with Mike Zimmer, to say the coach brought the safety out of retirement for the third consecutive year. Yes, the 34-year-old was out of the league until the Minnesota Vikings signed him last week, but he'd been preparing all offseason to join Zimmer at some point, to play an eighth straight season for him and fill a role the coach needs as much as ever.

Lewis
Crocker
The Vikings are new to Zimmer's 4-3 defense, which isn't overly complex but relies on sound technique and represents a significant change from the Vikings' old scheme. Crocker has played in the defense since 2007. He knows it well enough that he can serve as Zimmer's interpreter on the field, lending some additional perspective when the coach's teaching points are seasoned with profanity.

"The delivery might not sound good, but there’s a message with him," Crocker said. "I’m able to say, ‘Hey, this is what he really means,’ so we’ll go from there.”

As discombobulated as the Vikings' safety position appears right now, Crocker could wind up starting next to Harrison Smith, especially as injuries keep Robert Blanton, Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Mistral Raymond out of practice and preseason games. The Vikings didn't use Crocker last Friday against the Oakland Raiders, but he'll play on Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals now that he's back in better football shape.

"I've shown I can come in later on and still play at a high level," Crocker said. "I'm an older guy; it's sort of like, 'Hey, you give me a little break.' I didn't come in the first week and a half of camp, but I'm a guy that's been there, done that and seen it."

The Vikings will ask their safeties to play more man coverage than they did in the past, and Friday's game saw Smith lining up over slot receivers, in addition to blitzing the quarterback. The defense asks safeties to handle a variety of tasks, Crocker said, and his familiarity with what Zimmer wants might end up vaulting him ahead of safeties who haven't been on the field enough to show they grasp the defense.

"He's a very good cover guy," Smith said. "I don't know what I'll be doing, blitzing or playing deep. I just know he's a guy that makes plays on the ball and that's easy to play with."

W2W4: Minnesota Vikings

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
12:00
PM ET
The Minnesota Vikings (0-0) and the Oakland Raiders (0-0) open the preseason Friday night at TCF Bank Stadium.

1. Bridgewater's debut: The Vikings will get their first look at quarterback Teddy Bridgewater in a game situation, and they should have plenty of time to see where the rookie is at. Coach Mike Zimmer said Bridgewater will get some first-team work, and it's possible the quarterback could play up to two quarters, especially if starter Matt Cassel comes out after a couple series. The Vikings' game plan should be relatively simple on Friday night, and Bridgewater shouldn't have much trouble running the offense and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage, but he'll get to face a live defense for the first time in the better part of a year. If he handles all of it well, he'll make a strong opening case for the Vikings' starting job.

2. Barr starts at linebacker: First-round pick Anthony Barr will get the start at strong-side linebacker for the Vikings, after an impressive first two weeks of training camp. It's unlikely the Vikings will show many of their diverse plans for the linebacker -- they've put him on the defensive line, blitzed him from the linebacker position and dropped him into coverage during training camp -- but he'll have his first chance to compete against players he hasn't seen in practice every day, and the Vikings will get to see how well Barr can react on the fly.

3. Secondary in flux: The Vikings have a number of questions in their defensive backfield, and injuries haven't helped them get any answers. Safety Robert Blanton is unlikely to play because of a hamstring injury, while safety Jamarca Sanford's status is uncertain because of a back spasm. Cornerback Josh Robinson has dealt with a hamstring injury, as well, and 34-year-old safety Chris Crocker -- who might end up being the Vikings' starter next to Harrison Smith -- just came out of retirement this week. Second-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes is still adjusting to the Vikings' new defense, as well, so it wouldn't be surprising to see some rough moments from the secondary on Friday night. The game, however, provides an initial litmus test for a position group that had a major hand in the Vikings allowing more points than any team in the NFL last season.

Vikings camp report: Day 10

August, 5, 2014
Aug 5
8:00
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • Coach Mike Zimmer's fiery side was on display late in the afternoon practice after defensive end Everson Griffen jumped offsides in an 11-on-11 drill. Zimmer immediately called for the entire team to drop and begin pushups on the field. (I lost count but I believe it was 10.) "It was spur of the moment," Zimmer said. "The period before, a couple guys jumped offsides, and I got tired of it."
  • Veteran safety Chris Crocker, signed Monday, got some work with the first team Tuesday. Zimmer acknowledged he has long planned to bring in Crocker, who played for him during most of the past seven seasons, and envisions him as a facilitator of the defensive system to younger players. "I thought it would be good for him to be around," Zimmer said. "We've got a pretty young secondary, a pretty young defense. He knows the system well. I thought he would be in that defensive back room to help these guys understand exactly what I'm looking for. He's been with me for a little while."
  • That Crocker got work with the first team speaks to the Vikings' situation at safety opposite of Harrison Smith. Robert Blanton, who had been working with the starters, is trying to come back from a hamstring injury. Zimmer said Blanton's timetable appears more optimistic than once believed, but said: "Blanton's got to get back out here. He was looking good early. Now he had to get back out here and show what he can do."
  • The Vikings are beginning to prepare for Friday's preseason opener at TCF Bank Stadium. Zimmer planed to speak with to the team Tuesday night about the value of a home-field advantage. Temporary digs have not usually been kind to NFL teams, but Zimmer said: "Maybe we can be the first." Meanwhile, Zimmer indicated that tailback Adrian Peterson won't play. That sounds like a good plan. Peterson is healthy and doesn't need preseason work, whether or not the Vikings are installing a new offense.
  • The Vikings are scheduled for a walk-thru practice Wednesday morning from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. local time. Their primary practice will go from 3 p.m. to 5:10 p.m. local time.

Vikings wake-up call: Day 7

August, 1, 2014
Aug 1
9:45
AM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- Setting up the day at Minnesota Vikings camp:

Today's schedule: The Vikings have their normal routine of a 10:30-11:30 walk-through and a 3 p.m.-5:10 p.m. practice at Minnesota State University. Defensive coordinator George Edwards and special teams coordinator Mike Priefer are scheduled to talk to reporters after the morning walk-through.

More observations from Thursday's practice:
  • The Vikings have been doing extensive work with Xavier Rhodes, their talented second-year corner who still seems to be learning to trust his instincts in coverage. Rhodes is expected to be the Vikings' top cover corner this year, and while coach Mike Zimmer's defense typically doesn't ask corners to travel across the field with one receiver, Rhodes will undoubtedly see his share of difficult matchups this season. On Thursday, he drove on a route early in practice, but dropped an interception for the second consecutive day. Later, in a seven-on-seven red zone drill, he showed good technique against Jerome Simpson, playing with inside leverage that forced Matt Cassel to make a difficult throw to the back corner of the end zone, but Rhodes turned a split-second late for the ball and tried to swat it, rather than hitting Simpson's hands as he leaped to catch it. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray explained to Rhodes afterward that he'd played the right technique in coverage, but he just needed to force the ball out, rather than trying to recover by batting it away. It was a vivid snapshot in what's been a camp full of learning for Rhodes.
  • Zimmer continued to mix and match players in his first-team defense, giving Tom Johnson some work with the top unit at 3-technique tackle and rotating Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and rookie Antone Exum in the safety spot opposite Harrison Smith with Robert Blanton out because of a hamstring injury. Zimmer said he will release the Vikings' first formal depth chart sometime next week, and at certain positions it's probably dangerous to assume too much about a pecking order, when the Vikings are trying to get a look at a handful of different players in a variety of roles. ""Really, it's just about figuring out what guys can do," Zimmer said. "The more you can do, the more value you have to this football team."
  • The Vikings are experimenting with first-round draft pick Anthony Barr in a number of different ways. He's played linebacker in their dime package, has rushed from a defensive end position in the nickel, in addition to his normal work at linebacker in the base defense. He'll have to be able to hold up in coverage as a linebacker, but Zimmer's had no complaints there so far. "Coverage is great. He moves well. He’s got a good idea," Zimmer said. "Somebody was telling me that he takes copious notes in the meetings. He’s got pages and pages of them as we talk, so he’s very, very into trying to learn what we’re trying to do and teach. He’s got a lot of raw, athletic ability that helps in the coverage aspect of things. There’s times when he may pull off of somebody a little bit too soon that he’s got to do better at. But for the most part, I’ve been very pleased with that."
They said it: "I would say the sky's the limit, but there's no ceiling to his potential. There really isn't. If he's willing to put in the time, the potential is there. He has everything he needs. He's starting to mature as a player, as an individual, so his success is going to shoot straight through the roof. I'm excited. I told him this, and maybe it was a little premature, but I told him, 'At some point, I'm going to tell my kids I played with Cordarrelle Patterson.'" --Wide receiver Greg Jennings on Patterson.

Vikings Camp Report: Day 3

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
8:00
PM ET
MANKATO, Minn. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Minnesota Vikings training camp:
  • Robert Blanton's bid for the starting safety spot next to Harrison Smith continues to pick up steam; Blanton was again working next to Smith in the first unit on Sunday, while Jamarca Sanford -- who missed most of the Vikings' offseason program with a pulled muscle -- took second-team snaps. Coach Mike Zimmer said how impressed he was with Blanton's coverage skills on Sunday afternoon and wanted to see how the Notre Dame product fared in run support. Blanton came on strong at the end of last season after injuries forced a move to slot cornerback, and the coverage skills he flashed there could translate well to the safety position. The Vikings want to be able to put their safeties in man coverage at times so they can stay in their base defense and still handle three-receiver sets. "Robert has honestly impressed me with being in the right place all the time," Zimmer said. "He has really good ball skills, and he has made a couple really, really nice plays on the ball. He has been very solid and steady, he understands the checks and really the communication in the back end of where he is supposed to be."
  • Chad Greenway got some work at middle linebacker on Sunday, and it still seems possible he ends up there. The Vikings would be able to put Greenway in charge of their defensive huddle, knowing he'll likely stay on the field in nickel situations and could provide some continuity there. Greenway will have to earn the job, though, and he made a nice play in the Vikings' first padded practice on Sunday, driving Adrian Peterson back into Matt Cassel on the way to a sack. If the Vikings moved Greenway to the middle, they'd be able to put a couple of younger, athletic linebackers on either side of him. Gerald Hodges got some work at Greenway's usual weak-side linebacker spot, while Audie Cole continued to receive snaps on the strong side. Cole played in the middle last season, but if Anthony Barr isn't ready to grab the starting job, Cole could be a good option there.
  • It was another strong day for receiver Adam Thielen, who's easily become the darling of Vikings camp so far. Thielen, who went to college at Minnesota State and is going through training camp at his alma mater, has had a good connection with Teddy Bridgewater since this spring, and it showed again on Sunday, as Bridgewater hit him on a difficult deep out connection along the right sideline. Thielen said he spent his winter working out in the Twin Cities, trying to get faster and stronger, and he looks more impressive this year than he did last year. He also has some of the best hands on the team and has continued making the kinds of catches in traffic he was making during the Vikings' minicamp.
  • The Vikings' quarterbacks worked in the same order today, with Cassel running the first team, Bridgewater the second team and Christian Ponder the third. They started practice with a handful of screen passes, again setting up Peterson for a number of impressive gains, and didn't take many shots downfield on a windy and rainy day. In 11-on-11 drills, Cassel went 10-for-13, Bridgewater went 9-for-11 and Ponder went 6-for-7.
  • An odd day of weather made the Vikings' first padded practice feel more like October than July. The team started practice under a threatening sky, and the clouds opened up while the Vikings were still stretching, sending many of the fans and media members in attendance looking for shelter. Zimmer kept the Vikings on the field, though, and continued practice during a heavier period of rain later in the afternoon. In previous years, the Vikings have moved such practices inside, but it's worth remembering that the Cincinnati Bengals -- where Zimmer was the defensive coordinator the past six seasons -- are one of the only teams in the NFL without an indoor practice facility. Especially with the Vikings playing home games outdoors this season, the threshold for moving practices inside will likely be much higher.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As the Minnesota Vikings' safeties learn a defense that should bring much more variety to their roles than they had in the team's old scheme, a group of them is also auditioning for a role alongside Harrison Smith in the Vikings' starting lineup.

Coleman
Blanton
The Vikings have been rotating a number of safeties through their first-team defense during organized team activities, with Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo sitting out with injuries. Kurt Coleman, Robert Blanton, Brandan Bishop and rookie Antone Exum have all gotten plenty of work in OTAs, and the Vikings figure to use a number of combinations next week during their minicamp. Coach Mike Zimmer said that the Vikings will likely run through more drills like they did on Thursday, when they had safeties working at something closer to game speed, without as much direction from coaches in between plays.

"I think we'll get a little bit better feel of how it goes the more of this stuff like we did today, where the coaches aren't out there helping them, 'Hey, move this way, move that way. Line up here, line up there,'" Zimmer said at the Vikings' charity golf tournament. "When all the things happen and they have to make adjustments and checks because those guys are a lot like the quarterbacks for the defense when they get back there."

In the Vikings' old Cover 2 scheme, safety was a relatively staid position. The team used a defensive back to rush the passer on just 46 snaps last season, which was the sixth fewest in the NFL. The Cincinnati Bengals, under Zimmer, sent a defensive back after the quarterback on 76 snaps, the 15th most in the league, and Smith said he expects a more diverse set of responsibilities in the Vikings' new defense. Defensive backs coach Jerry Gray has talked about how he'd like to be able to use safeties in man coverage, and even the Vikings' zone coverages will have safeties working more aggressively to eliminate space from receivers, so much so that some of the zones will look like man coverage to the naked eye, Smith said.

"The safeties get to do a lot more, whether it's in coverage, sometimes being the free guy, being able to go make a play on the ball, coming down in the box, getting involved in the run game, blitzing," he said. "You really get to do it all."

That means there's more to be gained from finding the right player to go next to Smith. The competition will get even thicker once Sanford and Sendejo are healthy, but it stands to reason the Vikings will take their opportunities to see a number of different safeties, especially when they'll ask them to be a more dynamic part of their defense.

"Harrison's a smart guy," Zimmer said. "Kurt Coleman's doing a good job. Robert Blanton's doing a good job. We've got a lot of guys who are continually working at those spots. We're just trying to get them in the right position where we can get them to go play."
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jerry Gray spent the 2010 season as the defensive backs coach for a Seattle Seahawks team that made the playoffs with a dubious honor, becoming the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs with a losing record after winning the NFC West at 7-9.

One of Gray's tasks that season was to develop the two safeties the Seahawks had taken in that year's draft -- Earl Thomas, whom the team drafted in the first round, and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks' fifth-round pick. Four years later, the Seahawks are the world champions, thanks in no small part to Thomas and Chancellor, who might form the best safety duo in the NFL.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Smith
AP Photo/Joe RobbinsThe Vikings are counting on Harrison Smith to be an integral part of their new defense.
And Gray is now in Minnesota, working with a player who could put his name in the same sentence as the Seahawks' duo by the end of this season.

"I think you'll see him as one of the top safeties in the league," Gray said. "Him and Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas, they were all drafted around the same time, and now they're going to be in there about the same time. That's a sentence you want to be in, if you're Harrison."

If a turf toe injury slowed Harrison Smith's progress toward becoming one of the game's best safeties last season, his role in the Vikings' new defense could accelerate it this year. The Vikings have big plans for Smith in Mike Zimmer's new scheme, which should give the 25-year-old a more active role than he had in the Vikings' old Cover-2 defense.

"We're going to get him more involved," Gray said. "He'll be blitzing some. He'll be covering some. He'll be in the middle of the field. The thing that we're trying to do right now is, figure out what he's best at, and then put him in that position. Can he be one of the better safeties in the league, doing what we're teaching him here?"

As many Vikings players are doing during the team's voluntary minicamp this week, Smith is trying to digest a new scheme as quickly as he can. That process has been helped, Smith said, by doing film work with a focus on correcting small technique issues, which Zimmer has been drilling in the Vikings' first practices as a team.

"On film sometimes you can see my toe coming up, which means I'm on my heel," Smith said. "So that just means I need to put more weight on my toes. Small things like that that will give you a fraction of a second out of your break and maybe get an interception instead of a [pass defended] or make a play I wouldn't have made."

Smith has the speed and instincts to cover receivers, which could be a bigger part of his role than it ever was in a Cover-2 defense. If he's able to play man coverage on an inside receiver, the Vikings can spend more time in their base defense and keep an extra linebacker on the field for run situations, instead of shifting to their nickel package and giving up some size in the middle of the field.

"Now, people say, 'What am I going to do? I can't run it, because they've got their big guys in. I can't throw it, because their safety can cover my No. 2,'" Gray said. "That's really what Seattle does a lot. They keep their base out there, Earl Thomas goes down to cover No. 2, and then they put Kam in the middle. You don't want to run against Kam, you can't throw it against Earl, and now you make the best of both worlds. Hopefully we can get our guys to understand that concept."

The Vikings still need to see how well Smith can handle a broader role, but he's already shown flashes of becoming a star in his first two years in the league, returning two of his three interceptions for touchdowns as a rookie and picking off a pair of passes in just eight games last season.

Now, if a new scheme turns him loose, Smith could find himself on a short list of the league's elite.

"He's not afraid to go up in run support. He understands what leverage is. He understands all those things," Gray said. "With the second day [of minicamp], he's trying to figure out, 'Where do I fit in? What do I do here?' When you get past responsibility, and let talent take over, I think he'll be one of the best."
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- It's a predictable rite of coaching changes in the NFL: The new guy comes in, usually more (or less) of a disciplinarian or a player's coach than the last guy, and players talk about how the new atmosphere in the building is exactly what they needed.

With that in mind, we're not going to make any sweeping pronouncements from the second day of the Vikings' voluntary minicamp about whether the differences in Mike Zimmer's style from Leslie Frazier's will ultimately help the team win more games this season. There's a danger in trying to assign too much significance into anything that happens when players are in shorts and prohibited from hitting each other, so we'll try to err on the side of caution there.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
AP Photo/Johnny VyVikings coach Mike Zimmer is showing in minicamp that he's going to be active during practices in 2014.
That said, it was clear from what players said on Wednesday -- and what Zimmer modeled in practice -- just how much of a departure Zimmer's working style will represent from Frazier's. While Frazier preferred to run practices like a CEO, floating around the field, making broad observations about his team and letting his position coaches and coordinators do much of the hands-on work, Zimmer was there in the middle of defensive backs drills with secondary coach Jerry Gray on Wednesday, firing instructions at players on when to break on certain routes.

His leadership style figures to evolve in time, as he settles into the role of being a head coach, but in his first on-field work with players Zimmer clearly was trying to establish a different tone -- to the point where defensive end Brian Robison and safety Harrison Smith said they'd never seen a head coach as involved in day-to-day work as Zimmer has been.

"We’ve always had head coaches sit in meetings, but they’ve never really talked a whole lot," Robison said. "It’s been about the defensive coordinator. Whereas Zimmer is, he’s stepping up, he’s running the meetings most of the time, going through the defensive calls. Pretty much, he’s been the defensive coordinator. It’s that type of deal. And that’s taking nothing away from [defensive coordinator George] Edwards; obviously he does a lot of stuff, too, with us. In a way, I like that. You want to see a coach, a head coach, coaching and you want to see him take it upon himself to make sure that everybody’s doing the right thing and that’s what you see at practice.

"We’re out here and he’s actually grabbing guys and he’s showing them what to do, how to use their hands, how to do their footwork. And a lot of times you don’t get that, a lot of times you have head coaches kind of sit back and let their coaches do the work. Whereas he is taking it upon himself to make sure that every single person is doing the right thing.”

The key for Zimmer, at some point, will be incorporating more work with the offense into his daily routine; he spent much of the winter working with the Vikings' defense, and said on Wednesday he's been "straying over to the defense a little bit," adding he ran a meeting with the defensive backs earlier in the day. He's got the luxury of having a veteran offensive coordinator in Norv Turner, but Zimmer has also said he wants to be the head coach, not just the defensive coach, so he'll probably start to balance his responsibilities more at some point.

What seems clear, though, is that Zimmer will be more hands-on in practice than Frazier was, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Time will tell if he needs to delegate more to his coaches, but as he talked about it on Wednesday, it was clear Zimmer hadn't lost the charge he got from his days running drills as a position coach.

"I think I’m fairly good at it, and so I’m going to try to use my abilities as best I can," he said. "I get around the offense as much as I can, but at this stage I just feel like I have to spend more time with the defense. I have to be in the meetings and run the meetings, actually, you know, coach. I have to coach. That’s what I am: I’m a coach. And so just because I’m the head coach doesn’t mean stop coaching. It means you coach everything, but you still do the best job you can to get guys better.”
MINNEAPOLIS -- The fact that the Minnesota Vikings head into the 2014 season in need of secondary help should come as no surprise -- not for a team that allowed the most passing touchdowns, the second-most passing yards and the most points in the NFL last season. What might be more startling is just how long the Vikings have had a blighted secondary, and how unable they've been to alleviate at least some of the problem through a favorite method of some of their rivals.

The last time the Vikings had a player intercept more than four passes in a season was 2005, when Darren Sharper marked his migration from Green Bay to Minnesota with a nine-interception, two-touchdown season in just 14 games. Since then, the Vikings have intercepted just 104 passes -- the third-fewest in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- and have been unable to use turnovers to mask the league-worst 30,875 passing yards they've allowed.

[+] EnlargeJustin Gilbert
J.P. Wilson/Icon SMIThe Vikings could turn to Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert in the draft as a solution to their turnover problem.
The Packers and Chicago Bears haven't been much better, allowing the 15th- and 11th-most passing yards since 2006, but unlike the Vikings, they've had secondaries able to stop drives with turnovers. Green Bay's 178 interceptions are the most in the league since 2006, followed by Chicago's 159. In fact, the three teams with the most interceptions since 2006 -- the Packers, Bears and New England Patriots -- all rank in the bottom 15 of yards allowed, and the Packers and Patriots have given up the 5th- and 12th-most touchdown passes, respectively (the Vikings have allowed the third-most).

What can change the Vikings' long-running turnover drought? New coach Mike Zimmer's defensive scheme won't necessarily accomplish it naturally; the Cincinnati Bengals tied for 16th in interceptions since Zimmer took over in 2008, though they did pick off 23 more passes than the Vikings in that time. A Minnesota defense that ranked even in the middle of the league in takeaways would be a major improvement.

Safety Harrison Smith has shown signs of being a ballhawk -- he tied for the team lead in interceptions as a rookie (with three), brought two of them back for touchdowns and posted two more interceptions in just eight games last season. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn also returned his last four interceptions with the Carolina Panthers for touchdowns. Though cornerback Xavier Rhodes doesn't have a NFL interception after posting only eight in three years at Florida State, he's got the height and leaping ability to take passes away from receivers.

But the Vikings' lack of takeaways are part of the reason a player such as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert could make so much sense in the draft, particularly if Minnesota trades back from the eighth pick. Gilbert had seven interceptions last season for the Cowboys, bringing two back for touchdowns, and has both the closing speed and vertical leap to create turnovers. Putting him opposite Rhodes, with Munnerlyn in the slot, would give the Vikings a nice setup for years to come: two physical corners and a heady slot corner, all with Smith playing behind them. That kind of a secondary would have enough big-play ability that a rise in takeaways would seem likely, along with a decrease in porous pass coverage.

That was particularly evident last season when opponents tried to stretch the Vikings deep; they allowed a league-worst 14 touchdowns on passes that traveled 15 yards or more last season, according to ESPN Stats &Information, while intercepting just six passes. Those long-traveling passes can naturally turn into interceptions, and it's probably no coincidence that five of the nine teams that picked off the most deep passes -- including the Bengals -- went to the playoffs last year. Even if the Vikings' secondary isn't completely airtight next season, turnovers can be a salve, as the Kansas City Chiefs proved; they allowed 11 touchdowns of 15 yards or more, but intercepted 10 such passes on their way to an 11-5 record.

As the Vikings assess their secondary needs, finding a way to create more turnovers is certainly worth their consideration, especially when some of the teams around them have been so effective at using them to paper over some of their own flaws.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings offered former Philadelphia Eagles safety Kurt Coleman a contract after meeting with the free agent on Wednesday and Thursday, according to a league source, but Coleman is still weighing his options.

The Vikings confirmed Coleman's free-agent visit on Friday morning, which meant the safety had left the facility without a contract.

Coleman had met with several teams, and arrived in the Twin Cities on Wednesday to begin his visit with the Vikings. However, the contract offer wasn't enough to get him to pull the trigger on a deal on Friday. The Vikings and Coleman could still circle back to one another and come to an agreement at some point.

The former seventh-round pick started 27 games between 2011 and 2012 for the Eagles, but was bumped out of a starting job last season. If he were to sign with the Vikings at some point, he'd likely come in as a special-teams contributor and a backup at both safety spots, where he'd compete with Jamarca Sanford and Andrew Sendejo for playing time at one of them.

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