Believe it or not, the Minnesota Vikings weren’t the only winless team that earned its first victory after starting two rookie cornerbacks.
The 0-3 Denver Broncos started Essang Bassey and Michael Ojemudia on Thursday night and defeated another winless foe, the New York Jets, 37-28. Three days later, the Vikings started Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler as they beat the Houston Texans 31-23 to avoid an 0-4 start.
This is notable because it’s rare. Pro Football Reference documents only three instances of two rookie starters sharing the field at corner in the last three seasons, and both of them happened in Week 4. The last time it happened was in 2017 when Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie started for the Cowboys.
Even one rookie corner is rare for the Vikings. Under head coach Mike Zimmer, Minnesota had drafted three corners in the first two rounds prior to 2020 — Trae Waynes (first round), Mackensie Alexander (second) and Mike Hughes (first). They started just three combined games as rookies, and only because of injuries. Xavier Rhodes (first round) started six games back in 2013 prior to Zimmer’s arrival.
“I was wondering that myself, ‘When’s the last time?’” Zimmer pondered on Monday. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had two rookie corners start.”
He certainly hasn’t as the Vikings head coach, but his record is now 1-0 when it happens. This wasn’t, however, a radical coaching move to inject life in an ailing defense. This maneuver was made by default. Mike Hughes missed a second straight game with a neck injury, and second-year man Kris Boyd was ruled out with a hamstring injury. Left with only fifth-round rookie Harrison Hand on the bench, Zimmer trained in safety George Iloka to back up the nickel corner position — a move he had made in the playoffs last year with Andrew Sendejo.
Now that Zimmer has seen his defense play its best game with the two rookies in the lineup, he may have a tough decision to make when the group gets fully healthy. The head coach has been singing Dantzler’s praises since training camp, and Gladney just played his best game of the season.
“Coming in, when they drafted us, me and Jeff talked when we first got picked,” Dantzler told reporters Monday. “We knew we had to come in and play because they lost a lot of big-name guys last year, so we just took pride in that. We couldn’t let Coach Zimmer down at the end of the day because he had the faith to start two rookies. We haven’t started two rookie [cornerbacks] since 1999, so it’s just a blessing for me and him to go out and have our first starts together.”
Hughes, considering his first-round pedigree, should have a spot waiting for him upon his return, but which rookie would get replaced? It’s worth noting that Zimmer opted for Hughes, Dantzler and Holton Hill as his Week 1 starters when he had a full deck to choose from, but that group was torn apart by Aaron Rodgers, and Zimmer has now had a quarter of the season to evaluate his personnel. He certainly liked what he saw from his secondary Sunday — even without Harrison Smith in the second half — as they held Deshaun Watson in check until his last-ditch comeback attempt.
“You know, they did pretty well. They competed,” Zimmer said. “Obviously there were some plays that I’m sure they would like back, and I think both of them, even for Gladney, he’s playing the nickel and he’s playing outside, so that’s kind of double duty for a young guy. But I think they both battled well. They tackled. Gladney threw his stuff in there a couple times, and I think Cam for the most part did a nice job.”
As Zimmer alluded, the performance wasn’t perfect. Dantzler was caught in a miscommunication with Iloka on Will Fuller‘s touchdown catch, and Gladney was burned one-on-one for Houston’s biggest play of the day, a 43-yard catch by Fuller.
Dantzler, back after two missed games with a rib injury, was charged with Fuller’s touchdown catch by Pro Football Focus, but only allowed 21 yards on two receptions the rest of the game.
“I watched film with the older guys, just made sure I was on top of my game,” Dantzler said of his two games off. “Coach [Daronte] Jones, he did a great job to make sure I was still always prepared. Just watching my film, going over my plays and taking notes knowing I wasn’t playing. Still doing the little things.”
Gladney allowed 24 yards aside from Watson’s one deep shot of the game. He was the Vikings’ second-highest-graded defender, per Pro Football Focus, and made two run stops in the contest. Even his one missed tackle was a great effort that slowed David Johnson inside the 10-yard line and allowed Eric Kendricks and Jalyn Holmes to make the tackle.
His pass breakup on the first drive of the game set the tone for what would be a mostly frustrating day for Watson. Texans coach Bill O’Brien was fired Monday after Houston’s performance where Watson was under 50% passing for much of the afternoon.
The Vikings thrived defensively in the red zone Sunday, holding the Texans to six points in three trips inside the 20. Deshaun Watson was 0 for 5 as a passer in goal-to-go situations and fled the pocket four times in an effort to extend the play, but the Vikings secondary stayed disciplined. Gladney was especially impressive, as evidenced by his work in the left slot below. Gladney passes off his first assignment, takes away the crossing pattern where Watson is looking, then sets the edge and prevents Watson from scrambling toward the pylon. A great reactionary play by the rookie.
Will the recipe the Vikings used against the Texans be sustainable? Maybe, maybe not. They used far more zone coverage than usual, perhaps in an effort to mitigate big plays that plagued them the first three weeks. Minnesota also caught Houston at its lowest point in Week 4, and now they’ll face Seattle at its best next Sunday night. The Seahawks are 4-0, and Russell Wilson has already thrown 16 touchdown passes.
“It doesn’t get any different, really,” Zimmer said. “We’ve had to face Rodgers, and last week, it was Watson, and [Ryan] Tannehill was playing good. The receivers that they’re playing and the quarterback, obviously, it’s not going to get any easier for them. They’ve just got to keep going out and keep refining their technique, keep getting better at what they’re doing, keep learning about NFL football, and then go out and compete. Go out and challenge people.”
It would be helpful if the Vikings could develop some continuity at the cornerback position, but injuries have forced the Vikings to start four different combinations of players. Hughes’ health is a question mark heading into Week 5, which could mean more rookies starting in Seattle.
“At the end of the day, I feel like all of us have one goal, and that’s to win no matter who starts,” said Dantzler. “No matter if I start, Jeff, Mike, Holton – it doesn’t matter. I feel like we have a connection to where we’re going to be there for our brothers. Whoever starts, starts. We’re just going to come in and contribute together.”