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Season Review, DB's: Smith, Rhodes Boost Secondary

View the top 30 images of Vikings defensive backs from the 2014 season.

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Harrison Smith did a mixture of everything, and Xavier Rhodes reached a point where he didn't allow much of anything.

Smith, a third-year pro at safety, and Rhodes, a second-year cornerback, were two of the most impactful players on the season for a Vikings defense that improved significantly in 2014.

Minnesota finished its first season under Head Coach Mike Zimmer ranked seventh in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game (223.3), which was 24 spots higher than the previous season when the Vikings allowed an average of 287.2 passing yards per game.

The Vikings also made the largest improvement in defensive points allowed this season, reducing the category from 438 (27.4 per game in 2013) to 325 (20.3 per game in 2014). Dallas made the second-largest stride in the category with a 96-point improvement (425 to 329). 

Smith wasted little time in showing he bounced back from injuries in 2013. He returned an interception 81 yards for a touchdown at St. Louis in the season opener. He added picks against Atlanta, at Green Bay, at Chicago and at Miami and handled pre-snap communication for the secondary while moving to different parts of the field. In addition to his coverage ability, Smith showed he can play the run, rush the passer and make tackles in multiple types of situations.

The strides the defense made were encouraging, but Smith said players were unsatisfied with a 7-9 finish. He thinks a second year in the system "should make things run smoothly as long as we're putting in the work and trying to get better."

"I think there's a lot of confidence in here moving forward, not that we're happy where we're at, but there's a positive mindset of where we can go," Smith said.

Rhodes led the Vikings in passes defended for a second straight year. The 18 he recorded in the category followed 23 he posted as a rookie. Quarterbacks became more and more hesitant to challenge Rhodes, who showed versatility when he was asked to shadow Calvin Johnson in a rematch against the Lions and Alshon Jeffery in the finale against the Bears.

Robert Blanton started the first 13 games at the other safety spot before missing a game due to injury and was replaced by Andrew Sendejo in the final three games.

Captain Munnerlyn, who joined the Vikings in free agency, started at the other cornerback spot, then handled slot duties, moving inside when Minnesota implemented its nickel package that involved Josh Robinson at cornerback. Munnerlyn said the year he turned in was below his expectations.

"There's just some stuff I have to evaluate and study a little more this offseason and get myself ready for next year," Munnerlyn said. "Make more plays on the ball, and listen to Coach Zim more, try to stay on top of receivers and force them to throw underneath and make tackles."

Sixth-round pick, safety Antone Exum, Jr., and seventh-rounder, cornerback Jabari Price, were able to get their first exposure to the NFL but played mostly on special teams.

The chart below includes statistics of the secondary (tackles and quarterback hurries are coaches' tally):

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