The Minnesota Vikings have a lot of young cornerbacks, which isn’t going too well. They have been shredded the first two weeks by Davante Adams, Marques-Valdes Scantling and Mo-Alie Cox. To make matters worse, both Cameron Dantzler and Mike Hughes didn’t practice on Wednesday leading up to the Week 3 matchup with the Tennessee Titans.
The mentality of the cornerback position can be a tricky thing. You have to be confident at all times with no exceptions. Take it from perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson, explaining his pre-snap stare-down that has been handed down from Lester Hayes to Darrelle Revis to Peterson, and even prime Xavier Rhodes.
“When a team realizes you are a man-to-man corner and you are a guy that travels, they are going to try to do certain things to get you out of the game,” Peterson says. “They’ll try to get you tired, lull you to sleep, so by you doing that [stare-down], it shows the guy upstairs who is watching you that I am locked in every single play. No matter what you try to throw at me, I’m ready for it.”
I don’t have a great sense for playing cornerback in the NFL, since, of course, I never played. So I wanted to consult someone who did. Denard Walker had a nine-year career in the NFL, mostly with the Titans and Broncos, and also played with the Vikings for one year in 2003. Ahead of this week’s Titans-Vikings game, I brought Denard Walker onto Locked On Vikings to ask him how corners should handle rough stretches.
“Especially when you’re young, you’re going to struggle,” Walker said. “Ronde Barber said it best. His first year in Tampa Bay, they were ready to give up on him because he was doing so bad, he was giving up a lot of explosive plays … So what you want to do if you’re the Minnesota secondary, you’re the defensive coordinator, your main emphasis is to say, ‘Listen, we’ve got to stop giving up explosive plays and we’ve got to keep everything in front of us and tackle it.'”
Walker called cornerback “the second hardest position” in the game next to the quarterback position. It makes sense to apply a similar strategy of manufacturing small successes to build confidence. Much like scheming some easy completions for a young, struggling QB, a young, struggling CB could benefit from small, achievable victories.
Press-bail is a specific cornerback technique where you line up in press, meaning right across from the wide receiver with no cushion. Then, instead of trying to jam the receiver at the line (and risking getting burned for a big gain), you immediately flip your hips and go from there. Josh Norman used it famously during his heyday. Below is an example from one of the best, Richard Sherman:
Walker explains the utility of press-bail in the context of young, struggling cornerbacks. “You can line up in a man-to-man position, but you can press-bail it and play a zone-like concept. That actually keeps everything in front of you, and that keeps you over the top of the receiver.” In other words, you can guard against explosive, deep plays without ceding a ton of cushion.
Walker also suggested more off-coverage. However, that has been a bogeyman for the Vikings in the past. Rhodes had a lot of issues with off-coverage even dating back to his days at Florida. Off-coverage puts the cornerback in a much deeper alignment, which means that the wide receiver can simply run right at the corner, chew up as much cushion as fast as possible, and turn around for a quick hitch without any resistance (like McLaurin in his game against Rhodes last year).
Press-bail still carries some risk if you’re at a speed disadvantage. Any speedster can turn man-to-man coverage into a foot race whenever they want. Thankfully, the Vikings’ Week 3 opponent lacks the sort of track-star burner that can punish press-bail technique.
Corey Davis, the main option for Tennessee with A.J. Brown out a bone bruise in his knee, is a big-body possession receiver. Adam Humphries ran a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash. The only other oft-targeted players are tight ends Jonnu Smith and Anthony Firsker, the former of which did not participate in Wednesday’s practice with an ankle injury. If the Vikings wanted to rack up easy wins, they could do so without risk of a burner taking the top off of their defense.
It’ll take more than some manufactured confidence to fix the issues presented by a Holton Hill and Kris Boyd-led secondary. But from the direct words of a nine-year NFL veteran, that’s where it will have to start.