EAGAN, Minn. — Back in January, two days after Minnesota's playoff run ended on the road in San Francisco, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer hinted at what the 2020 Vikings could look like in some areas.
"At the end of the day," Zimmer said, "it ends up being a young man's game."
As the Vikings head into their bye week with a 1-5 record and in last place in the NFC North, Zimmer's team has indeed gone young at a few positions.
Perhaps the most noticeable is at cornerback, where the Vikings are currently relying on a pair of rookies — first-rounder Jeff Gladney and third-rounder Cameron Dantzler — as the de-facto starters due to both injury and up-and-down play from the group.
The results through six games haven't been pretty, as Minnesota's defense ranks 30th in both passing yards allowed per game (286.7) and passing yards allowed per play (8.15).
And while the Vikings have faced a slate of impressive veteran quarterbacks, Zimmer said earlier this week that he wants to see tenacity from the group that has been baptized by fire thus far.
"We had too many mistakes, too many soft coverages," Zimmer said. "We've got to start getting tighter in the coverage, and we've got to start defending the passing game way better than what we are."
Against the Falcons, the Vikings secondary allowed 363 net passing yards and four touchdowns to quarterback Matt Ryan, a former league MVP.
Zimmer said the problem wasn't that players lined up incorrectly or didn't understand the coverage. Instead, Zimmer noted, they just weren't aggressive enough.
"I think it was just guys playing unsure. It really wasn't coverage lapses. There wasn't hardly any busts," Zimmer said. "We just didn't challenge [Falcons receivers] enough. There wasn't really much of that.
"The one [fourth-down] play on the scramble that Gladney gave up … he saw the quarterback running, he had [Julio Jones] and started to come off … and then all of the sudden he tried to get back, and by that time it was too late," Zimmer added. "The long ball down the sideline on Dantzler, he didn't get into [Jones]. There were a couple times we were way too far away from the receivers and gave up easy catches. We didn't contest any balls. That was disappointing."
In his Monday video conference with the Twin Cities media, Zimmer was then asked if it's simply the case of growing pains with a young cornerbacks group.
He again emphasized that his players were in the correct spot, just that they weren't as assertive as they needed to be. Zimmer also put his teaching hat on and explained what he was looking for from Gladney, Dantzler and others.
"It's not so much lining up. I'll give you a couple examples," Zimmer said. "When you're playing off coverage, the two most important things are the speed of the receiver and the release of the receiver and when to turn.
"When you're playing press, it's about getting in the right position at the line of scrimmage and then being good on top so you can be good at the top of the route," Zimmer continued. "And so right now our guys, I think they're kind of looking in the backfield a little bit, trying to see the play-action, the runs, things like that.
"Consequently, we're not getting tight enough to the receiver," Zimmer added. "We're giving them way too much space, wherever he is, as opposed to getting into the receiver and using our body on their body to try and affect the route."
To be fair, Minnesota's secondary hasn't been helped by a defensive front that can't seem to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
But the Vikings young cornerbacks recently said they know the onus is on them to show more improvement in the final 10 games of the season.
"The game is much faster. You're guarding bigger and better receivers," Dantzler said of the transition to the NFL. "So I just have to get more physical, make plays when the plays are there for me to be made and just be tight on coverage.
"I feel like me playing in the four games I have played, I learned from them, so those four games were a learning experience," Dantzler added. "I just have to move forward and perfect my craft."
Added Gladney: "That growth, to me, is coming from just reps. Just getting in the game a lot, nickel and outside corner. The more reps I get, the better I feel I get, the more comfortable I am."
According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, the Vikings top-graded cornerback is rookie fifth-rounder Harrison Hand. He is 70th out of 175 players with a grade of 62.6 on just 37 defensive snaps in 2020.
Gladney has a grade of 56.8 and ranks 104th overall, while Dantzler and Mike Hughes are tied for 113th with the same grade of 54.4. Kris Boyd's 43.2 grade is 155th, while Holton Hill's grade of 42.6 ranks 158th overall.
Gladney is the lone Vikings cornerback to play in all six games this season, as that group has also been hampered by injuries.
Dantzler missed two games with a rib injury, while Hill (foot) and Boyd (hamstring) have missed the past two games with injuries.
View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of January 4, 2021.
And Hughes missed two games with a neck injury before playing just 13 snaps in Week 6. He left that game with a neck injury.
Minnesota's schedule of opposing quarterbacks doesn't get any easier, as the Vikings face four different Super Bowl winners (Aaron Rodgers, Nick Foles, Tom Brady and Drew Brees) in the final 10 games.
Dantzler said it will be up to him and Gladney to come along quicker and show the aggressiveness Zimmer wants to see.
"With me and Jeff being the two starting rookie corners, me and him watch film together also, just so me and him can be on the same page," Dantzler said. "So just those little things help you out going into the game.
"The NFL has different rules, so you just have to adjust to them. We just have to make our plays," Dantzler added. "We have guys that are in the right position, me included – we just need to make our plays, at the end of the day. That's all I can say about that. Just make our plays."
Despite the rough start, Zimmer said he still has faith in the rookies.
And with the playoffs likely a longshot for a Vikings team that currently is also in last place in the entire NFC based on tiebreakers, perhaps tangible improvement from Gladney, Dantzler and others will be a strong sign for the future.
"I still think they're going to be good players," Zimmer said. "It's been a lot of learning by fire.
"We've just got to continue to get out there and compete and get that mindset," Zimmer added.
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