Generally speaking, a team would prefer to have all the spots in its line-up locked down going into a gigantic playoff game. Unfortunately, such is not the case for the Vikings a day ahead of their showdown with the red-hot Dallas Cowboys.
Two positions at least are major question marks headed into one of the biggest games in the history of the Vikings franchise, one because of health, the other because of ineptitude.
Both happen to be in the secondary, an element of the defense that needs to be on top of its game considering who the Vikings will be facing.
Neither situation is a new one for the Purple. For weeks now they’ve been dealing with Antoine Winfield‘s health issues and the cornerback shuffling necessitated by same. And for just about the entire season, they’ve been dealing with incompetent play from their strong safety.
The cornerback issue was supposed to be solved weeks ago when Antoine finally returned from his slightly mysterious foot injury, but unfortunately, the foot has not healed sufficiently for Antoine to be trusted in deep coverage against fast receivers, forcing the Vikes to relegate their Pro Bowl corner to spot duty, mostly against slot men, while Benny Sapp lines up on the outside.
That plan worked against the Giants the final game of the season, mostly because the Giants didn’t test the secondary. But this time the Vikings will be facing Tony Romo, a quarterback who likes flinging it deep. And they’ll be facing the talented receiver Miles Austin, who has run roughshod over secondaries all season long.
The Cowboys would be fools not to throw the ball at Benny Sapp, a decent nickel corner who looks to be wildly overmatched in his new role as Winfield’s replacement.
If the Cowboys do indeed elect to go airborne, the Vikings will need quick reacting help defense from their safeties, not to mention sure tackling. At least one starter back there, Tyrell Johnson, has shown no ability to consistently muster either of these attributes, and at times has appeared completely in over-his-head.
This is why, for the second straight game, Leslie Frazier will be rotating Johnson and rookie Jamarca Sanford.
Bad coverage is only half the story when it comes to Tyrell Johnson’s disappointing first year as the starting strong safety. The other half is his run support, if the word “support” can even be used to describe what often happens when Johnson comes up to attempt a tackle on a running back.
Sanford, at least, has shown an ability to occasionally put a good stick on a back, and in limited action, has shown signs of possessing an instinct for the game that Johnson seems to utterly lack.
Sanford’s big-play ability coupled with Johnson’s apparent cluelessness has convinced the brain trust that some tinkering is needed. This wouldn’t worry us at all if it were preseason or even early in the regular season. But to be unsure about who you trust at an important starting secondary position heading into a playoff game against a borderline-superstar quarterback who has a Pro Bowl receiver and a Pro Bowl tight end to throw to?
Let’s just hope the defensive line has a dominating game, so we won’t have to think about what might happen at the other end.