Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer's defense calls for safeties that match his tough, no-nonsense demeanor.
"Playing safety in this defense, you really have to be able to play both the run and the pass very well and just be consistent," safety Harrison Smith told sideline reporter Ben Leber during the simulcast by FOX 9 and KFAN 100.3-FM of Thursday night's preseason game against Seattle. "[You have to be] a tough player, good tackler, and we have a lot of good guys that can do that."
There's been some question of who will be the permanent installment as the season's starting safety opposite Smith, and the preseason offers coaches in-depth look at their options.
Zimmer opted to start free agent signee Michael Griffin with Smith on Thursday, then replace Smith with Andrew Sendejo while Griffin was still in the game. Sendejo started all 13 games he played in 2015.
"I don't look too much into it," said Griffin, who received the starting nod for the first time in purple after starting 141 games in nine seasons with Tennessee. "It's just the rotation we did today. I got the start to go with the 1s, and then they pulled [Harrison] out, and it was me and Sendejo. So I mean, we all got an equal amount of playing time tonight."
The game and various lineups gave coaches more time to assess their depth at safety and a number of different tandems. Zimmer said he started Griffin to observe him situationally.
"I just wanted to get a good look at him playing a different position," Zimmer said. "Have to keep evaluating."
Griffin started along with cornerback Trae Waynes. Between the two, the pair of defensive backs total 24 years of NFL experience on the field. Although he's a veteran, Griffin said he's continuing to learn Minnesota's system after spending all of his career in Tennessee, and he appreciated the opportunity to just get out and play in preparation for the regular season.
"Still being the new guy, you have to kind of learn the ropes," Griffin said. "Just trying to play with our defense and not try to do anything out of the ordinary – just play within the defense and do the right things you're supposed to do."
Griffin has been able to glean some knowledge of the Vikings system from Sendejo, who received the majority of first-team reps throughout training camp. Although he played second team Thursday, Sendejo made his presence known – especially to Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Inside the two-minute warning of the first half, Sendejo took down Wilson via a blitz on a crucial third-and-7 situation for a loss of 18-yards. Sendejo's play was one of four Minnesota sacks on Wilson and forced one of six Seattle punts. The Vikings tallied two more sacks on the night with takedowns of Trevone Boykin on the final possession.
Smith, who played into the second quarter Thursday, said the Vikings pride themselves on having an aggressive defense. No matter who ends up starting across the field from him come the regular season, Smith said one shared focus of the unit is to create more turnovers for opponents. Minnesota finished the game with a late-fourth-quarter pick-six by cornerback Marcus Sherels, and Smith said it's a constant goal for the secondary to create similar plays.
"As long as we play within the rules [of the defense], those opportunities are going to arise," Smith said. "You don't want to start jumping things and giving up home runs.
View images from the Vikings' second preseason game of 2016 as they took on the Seahawks in Seattle.
"But the way that we rush the passer to those guys up front, we have a lot of faith in them," he added. "And they make it easier for us on the back end to go get those interceptions, get the ball off, so that's what we're looking to do more of this year."
At the end of the game, Griffin said the defense came away with both positives and negatives, and he is looking forward to watching the film, getting back on the practice field and continuing to improve before the Vikings open the season against his former team in Tennessee.
Whatever role Zimmer decides to use Griffin in come Sept. 11, he said he's grateful to share a locker room where everyone is striving toward team goals and not individual ones, and he wants to contribute wherever he can.
"One thing I can respect about this team is that everybody gets along," Griffin said. "Everybody supports each other. No matter who's in there, we're all trying to help each other out, and that's one thing that good football teams do."