There's always a learning curve with young players.
And despite the ache of Sunday night's heartbreaking loss at Seattle, Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he is seeing improvements by his less-experienced defenders.
Zimmer spoke to Twin Cities media members Monday afternoon and was asked how a coach can teach the youngsters how to "finish" games that come down to the wire. He acknowledged that it's most effective to learn hands-on.
Zimmer contrasted a Week 1 miscue by rookie cornerback Cam Dantzler with the play against the Seahawks in which DK Metcalf made a 39-yard catch on fourth-and-10 with Dantzler in coverage.
"It's hard because they haven't been in those situations. For instance, right before the half with Cam Dantzler [against] Green Bay, he's in the wring position and gives up the big play," Zimmer said. "This time, he's understanding the situation. He was actually in great shape on the play, just misjudged the ball. Instead of going up and getting it, he's waiting for it to come down. They've got a good receiver, and he came down with it.
"The more times you put them in these situations, unfortunately, you learn these kinds of things. We'll continue preaching to them and talking to them," continued Zimmer, who pointed out that Minnesota had four rookie defenders on the field for some snaps Sunday. "These young corners are going to have to learn by being in these instances, being in these situations. They've got a lot of things on their plate: learning who the good receivers are, where their splits are, how the receivers run their routes studying where the back is … all the different things they have to learn."
The next step, Zimmer noted, is applying those things specifically to late-game situations.
"Now we have to put it into the fourth quarter and these 2-minute situations where they understand, 'OK, now is not the time to be aggressive. Now is the time to be cautious,' " he explained. "It's all a learning process for them.
"I still feel good about Dantzler. I think he's going to be a heck of a player," Zimmer added. "I thought [Jeff] Gladney played good in the slot last night, thought he did some really nice things. It's just one of those things, and we're probably not the last team that Russell Wilson will come back on in the fourth quarter."
Here are four other topics Zimmer discussed during his media session:
1. Update on Cook and compliments for Mattison
Vikings running back Dalvin Cook recorded 65 rushing yards and a touchdown on Sunday before leaving the game in the third quarter with a groin injury.
Zimmer said an MRI to evaluate Cook on Monday "went pretty well."
"We'll see how he does this week," Zimmer said.
If Cook isn't able to go against the Falcons (or any other upcoming game), though, there is confidence in Alexander Mattison. The second-year back filled in admirably for Cook in Seattle, racking up a career-high 112 yards on 20 carries.
If Mattison has to maintain that larger role, will it change anything about the Vikings run-heavy offensive scheme?
"No, I don't believe so. He's been in that role before, so I don't think that will change at all," Zimmer said.
2. Revisiting – but not regretting – the fourth-and-1
Zimmer said postgame that he didn't regret the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 rather than kicking a field goal inside the 2-minute warning.
He reiterated the sentiments on Monday.
"In that situation, I'm always going for the win. I don't care. We've done that many times, and we'll continue to do it," Zimmer said. "We had half a yard to go, we'd been running the ball really well. I felt like their defense was tired, and we hit two other fourth downs earlier in the ball game. I'll do it again next time it comes up. If you've got a chance to win the game, you've got to go for it."
He did offer a breakdown of the play itself, a run by Mattison for no gain:
"There was a good seam there. But you know, we kind of ingrain in these guys, 'Go get the first down.' What happened was, they kind of covered up the guards and tackles, and I think the linebacker came, and C.J. [Ham] met him in the hole. Then the defensive end kind of backed into him. Obviously if [Mattison] would have bounced outside, I'm sure he would have got it. There was a lot of space out there. Kyle [Rudolph] did a nice job blocking his guy. But it's kind of the way it goes."
3. The problem of holding penalties
The Vikings endured damage via a trio of offensive holding penalties called on right guard Dru Samia.
Zimmer said it was a matter of Samia "being in bad position most of the time or being over-aggressive" and that it's a work in progress.
"You've got to keep working on being in the right position and understanding that on double teams, you can go ahead and be as aggressive as you want. But if you're reaching a guy or cutting a guy off, you've got to make sure where your hands are," Zimmer explained. "Right now in the league, all of the offensive linemen are putting their hands outside the framework. It's just how well you get them back inside. Obviously the offensive holding calls have been down throughout the course of the league. And so we're just going to have to adjust. Once we do get them there, we've got to get them back inside."
4. Wilson continuing to work
Vikings linebacker Eric Wilson certainly had an impressive outing against the Seahawks, notching an interception and sack of Russell Wilson in addition to six tackles, a pass defensed and three quarterback hits (press box stats).
As Wilson's role in the defense has expanded, he's gotten more and more comfortable with the responsibilities, and it's showing up on tape.
"Eric's done a nice job. I think he's starting to play a little bit more free and relaxed," Zimmer said. "He's a good athlete, really smart guy, tough and physical. He had some mistakes last night, as well, but the interception he made was a terrific interception, he had a nice sack on Wilson earlier in the game. But there's still a lot of things for him to work on. He's continuing to get better, just got to keep pushing him in the right direction."
Vikings Connected is a light hearted look at the Vikings players and organization through social media as well as an opportunity to showcase the personalities on the team. Returning for their 7th season are co-hosts Erin Newburg, and Chris Hawkey from the Vikings Radio Flagship KFAN.