Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer was careful with his words this week so as not to tank the confidence of his young cornerbacks. He knows inexperienced players such as Jeff Gladney, Kris Boyd and Harrison Hand already have enough on their plates.
That’s why when asked point-blank if he has to “protect” them with some of his play calls — something he almost surely will do against the Detroit Lions on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium — Zimmer danced around the question so much he seemingly started to confuse himself.
“Uhh,” he said. “What’s the word I’m looking for? I can’t think of the word right now. Help me out.”
“Not cautious,” Zimmer said. “I’m going to pick my spots. How’s that? That wasn’t what I was looking for.”
“No,” Zimmer said. “Not the word I was looking for either. I’ve got to get out the Webster’s Dictionary.”
“Well, I do that every Sunday before the game,” Zimmer said. “They have all made improvements.”
That was on display last weekend as the Vikings earned a stunning 28-22 victory over the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. In that game, star quarterback Aaron Rodgers struggled to get anything going, though gusting winds seemed to help.
Nonetheless, it was a confidence boost for some of the young cornerbacks, and something Zimmer is trying to build on. That could be easier said than done this weekend as the Vikings will be without usual starters Cameron Dantzler and Holton Hill, as well as backup Mark Fields II.
Add in the fact that veteran Mike Hughes is on injured reserve, and that means Jeff Gladney and Kris Boyd will get a lion’s share of the reps, with Hand likely working in on a rotational basis.
Not exactly household names out there.
“I think what I’m looking for out of these guys is not so much paint-by-the-numbers, it’s a little bit more — ‘Oh, I can kind of anticipate what they might be doing here based off the split or the motion or the receiver that’s in there,’ ” Zimmer said. “We are still in kindergarten. We are trying to get to a master’s program here quickly.”
There were some obvious coaching points from last weekend, such as when Packers receiver Davante Adams fooled Gladney with a nice fake and found himself wide open in the end zone for an easy touchdown
“The ball is snapped, (Adams) gives a little shake, (Gladney) looks inside then gets beat to the outside, where that’s where he should’ve been all the way,” Zimmer said. “There’s a lot of little things like that I’m trying so hard to get these young kids to understand.”
There were also more subtle coaching points from last weekend, like the handful of plays where Gladney and Boyd were caught out of position, allowing Adams to gain a ton of separation on easy catches
“These corners that come out of college, No. 1, they might play one real good quarterback a year, and then No. 2, they might play a couple of great receivers a year,” Zimmer said. “They are playing them every week now. They have to understand how tight they have to be in order to knock the ball down or intercept the ball or whatever. It just takes a lot of time with these young guys in all aspects.”
There’s only so much Zimmer can do to help from the sideline, so he has also relied veteran safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris on game days.
“I’ve always tried to talk to corners and let them know when I’m there and when I’m not, whatever, because that’s a lonely place out there,” Smith said. “I try to communicate it in an effective way as much as I can. I’m not a coach, so I’m not going to overstep those boundaries and start creating stuff, just try to be, like, in the same thought process as the coaches, and if they need me to relay something, try to kind of be that guy in between.”
That same thing goes for Harris, though he took it a step further last weekend, literally playing out of position with the Vikings down so many cornerbacks.
“I don’t think I’ve gotten any game reps at nickel,” Harris said. “I’ve gotten a couple at practice and that’s about it. I pride myself on knowing my individual job and what the people around me are doing. I was able to know the assignments and go in and play some nickel and try to help us finish the game.”
In a perfect world for the Vikings, it won’t be the same story this weekend, and Smith and Harris will be able to hold it down from their natural spots on the field. That seems preferred for both players.
“In my opinion, corner is the hardest position on the field,” Smith said. “The rules are stacked against them. There’s a ton of space. It’s a hard position to play.”