Carl Lee knows what it’s like to be a young defensive back picked apart in an NFL season opener by a future hall of fame quarterback.
To start the 1984 season, Lee’s Vikings were dissected 42-13 by the San Diego Chargers and Dan Fouts at the Metrodome. That was the most points the Vikings had give up in an opener until Sunday’s 43-34 loss to Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“It was one of those days when you just can’t seem to stop them, and you want to go up to the press box and just fast forward the clock and let’s just end it here,” said Lee, who was in his second season with the Vikings and first as a regular starter in 1984.
Lee went on to become one of the best Vikings cornerbacks of all time, making three Pro Bowls and being named all-pro once while playing in Minnesota from 1983-93. So, he knows about bouncing back, and he hopes that will be the case with the Vikings’ young cornerbacks this season.
Rodgers completed 32 of 44 passes for 364 yards and four touchdowns against a Vikings secondary whose cornerbacks were rookie Cameron Dantzler, and Holton Hill and Mike Hughes, both of whom are in their third season but seeing advanced playing time for the first time in the NFL careers.
Entering Monday’s two games, Pro Football Focus rated 88 cornerbacks on their season-opening performances, and this is how the Vikings ranked: Dantzler at No. 40, Hughes at No. 57 and Hill dead last at No. 88.
“You know playing against a hall of fame quarterback, as a cornerback, you can be a highlight waiting to happen,” Lee said. “But you’re not going to get better until you experience it, and you just hope you don’t repeat it.”
Now that their young cornerbacks have a game under their belts, the Vikings hope there won’t be a repeat the next time they face a future hall of fame quarterback. That will be Sunday in Indianapolis, where the Colts feature Philip Rivers.
“We’re going to put this game behind us, getting ready for Indianapolis,” Dantzler said. “My performance individually, I feel like I played a good game for my first game as a rookie, but it could have been better. … But I still haven’t lost my confidence, and I just have to move forward and continue to prepare for the other guys I’ll be facing.”
Dantzler, a third-round draft pick out of Mississippi State, started along with Hughes and played 64 of 78 defensive snaps. When the Vikings shifted to a nickel defense, Hughes went to the slot and Hill entered the game. Hill played 59 snaps overall and Hughes 58.
Dantzler struggled covering Green Bay’s Davante Adams, who had 14 catches for 156 yards, and gave up a 45-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling with 14 seconds left in the first half. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called it a “learning experience” for Dantzler and said on the touchdown he incorrectly tried to “play bump-and-run” on Valdes-Scantling.
“It was a blessing to have my first career start versus a guy like Aaron Rodgers,” Dantzler said. “I didn’t have any butterflies. … So, just playing a guy like that from the start of my rookie season, it just makes me feel good and comfortable for the season.”
If the Vikings can’t produce more of a pass rush, it will be hard for any of their defensive backs to get too comfortable. With defensive end Danielle Hunter out with an injury, the Vikings did not sack Rodgers, and Pro Football Focus listed their ends as having just three pressures.
“If you can’t sack (Rodgers), if you can’t get pressure on him, you’re going to get beat,” Lee said.
Zimmer did note that Rodgers got the ball out very quickly. And Zimmer said he must do a better job with the Vikings’ young cornerbacks.
“We still have to work technique and things like that, and there were some issues where they should have been in a different alignment than they were,” Zimmer said. “Those kind of things will show up as we continue to move forward. But I can do a better job with them, for sure.”
Overall, Sunday’s game was a defensive nightmare for the Vikings. They gave up the most points in any game in Zimmer’s seven seasons coaching the team, and the 522 yards allowed were the second-most.
Meanwhile, Lee knows how that felt. In that 1984 opener, the Chargers rolled up 526 yards as Fouts completed 21 of 28 passes for 292 yards and two touchdowns.
“In this game, youth and experience don’t always match up, but you’ve just got to come right back the next week,” he said.