With Mackensie Alexander out with injury early last season, the Vikings were looking for options at cornerback in Week 2 against Green Bay.
Jayron Kearse was struggling in the first quarter, so head coach Mike Zimmer went with Nate Meadors, a rookie undrafted free agent, in the slot as the Packers drove into the Vikings’ red zone. It only took three plays for Aaron Rodgers to identify the mismatch and target Meadors for a touchdown pass to Geronimo Allison.
It would be Meadors’ final play of the game.
It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last that Rodgers finds a way to exploit the weak link in an opponent’s defense. (Remember A.J. Jefferson in 2012?) The trouble is that the Vikings may have a handful of perceived liabilities in their secondary on Sunday when the Packers enter a fan-less U.S. Bank Stadium.
The rotation is unclear, but there’s a great chance rookie corners Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney see playing time, while third-year corners Mike Hughes and Holton Hill take the bulk of the reps in base defense.
“Yeah, we definitely have youth,” said safety Harrison Smith. “That’s not really debatable. I think our oldest guy is 23, maybe, something like that. But we have a lot of guys who have a tremendous amount of skill and more understanding than a lot of guys do early on.”
That understanding has come in part from the savvy at the back end of the defense, where Smith and Anthony Harris have been credited as a critical component for keeping the secondary strong. Zimmer, defensive backs coach Daronte Jones and defensive consultant Dom Capers have all raved about their leadership and communication, which Zimmer says has kept a lot of coverages in play for the young corners that would’ve otherwise had to be simplified.
“They are the leaders,” said Capers. “They set the tone. They are great communicators, which is important in terms of making adjustments and checks and all those types of things. Those two guys are extremely valuable and critical to our defense.”
But Smith and Harris can’t make the plays for Gladney, Dantzler, et al. They can only get them in the right positions.
While Green Bay doesn’t have many noteworthy pass catchers besides Davante Adams, Rodgers’ precision will nonetheless test Minnesota’s young corners in a way they haven’t been during a preseason without games. Having put nothing on film this preseason, the Packers also have the element of surprise on their side, and head coach Matt LaFleur surely knows how raw the Vikings cornerback group will be.
“There’s going to be an adjustment because the speed of the game is so much faster in games,” said co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer. “You’re going to have to react to some faster situations, some routes you haven’t seen before because it’s a different team. We’re going based off last year’s film, but there’s a lot of plays they might have come up with in the offseason that we haven’t been able to practice. I think they do have to do a good job of reacting to what they see and learning on the fly in some of those situations.
“We do the same thing in practice, as far as we don’t give them the offensive plays. We say, ‘We’re playing this coverage. Go out and execute it.’ That’s pretty much what we’re going to have to do in the first game because there’s no preseason evidence about how much Green Bay has changed.”
The Vikings at least know more about the Packers today than they did a year ago at this time when Matt LaFleur had yet to debut his new system, and Zimmer knows plenty about Rodgers after facing him 11 times as the Vikings coach. There may not be a quarterback out there who’s earned more of Zimmer’s respect than the 36-year-old, which is why the Vikings have already been prepping their corners on some of Rodgers’ finer skills.
“We’ve showed them a few plays where he’s made some unbelievable, incredible throws,” Zimmer said. “If you’re not tight on this guy, you’re looking to make a tackle as opposed to getting the ball out.”
And what advice would Smith give to a new corner debuting against the eight-time Pro Bowler?
“The play might be longer than you’re used to,” he said. “Every play seems to last a little longer when you play Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Everybody kind of has an internal clock to some degree of how long a play is, and normally it lasts a little longer, so you might get a little more fatigued.
“You can’t relax when you think a play is over.”