MINNEAPOLIS — Alignment. Assignment. Technique.
These are the catchphrases right now for what Vikings defensive coordinator Alan Williams believes can be a defensive revival in 2012. A revival by simplification, actually.
Yes, the new defensive coordinator is aware he inherited a defense that a year ago was disjointed and easier to pick apart than a state fair turkey leg.
Yet here’s how quick and dramatic Williams thinks the turnaround can be.
“We can be a top 10 defense,” he asserted. “We just have to make sure as a coaching staff, we’re in tune to making sure guys are detailed about carrying out their assignments.”
The Vikings ranked 26th against the pass in 2011, allowing 251.2 yards per game and a league-worst 107.6 rating for opposing quarterbacks. And while they finished 11th overall against the run (107 ypg), that was a considerable dip for a defense that had been first or second in the league in that category in four of the previous five seasons.
To Williams, alignment, assignment and technique have to be at the core of the troubleshooting efforts — with players being in the right place before the snap; understanding their job on every play without the temptation to do too much; and applying what they’ve been coached to do after the snap.
“I’ve always said we were not too far off last year,” Williams said, “and it had nothing to do with talent. It just had to do with guys paying attention to detail and being in their run gaps and just executing the defense.”
The preseason returns on Williams’ hopes have been difficult to sort out. Two weeks ago in San Francisco, the Vikings allowed the 49ers to march 84 and 80 yards for touchdowns on their opening two drives. But there was a big asterisk — veteran starters Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Antoine Winfield weren’t playing.
And with that trio back last week, the Vikings held the Bills to six first-quarter yards on eight plays. Buffalo picked up only one first down in the opening period and was on the field for only 4 minutes, 24 seconds.
So now, tonight at Mall of America Field, comes the biggest preseason litmus test — a battle against the Chargers that will see the starting defense play into the third quarter.
Friday night’s game will also provide Williams an opportunity to gauge just how big the questions through the middle of his defense are.
The Vikings are far from stable at nose tackle, middle linebacker and safety.
Coach Leslie Frazier believes fifth-year vet Letroy Guion will be the answer in the middle of the defensive front.
“He can be a dominant guy inside,” head coach Leslie Frazier said. “With his quickness, his strength, his athletic ability, we just need to let him see more.”
But Guion suffered a posterior cruicate ligament sprain in his right knee in San Francisco two weeks ago, aggravated that injury Tuesday and will now be held out against the Chargers, leaving Fred Evans to take his place.
In the linebacking corps, Williams has continued to publicly express encouragement toward Jasper Brinkley. Still, Brinkley, with four career starts to his name and a 2011 season lost to hip surgery, has done little in the preseason to earn such confidence and the usually sanguine Frazier has continually expressed worry about Brinkley’s confidence.
Maybe Brinkley’s hesitance and lack of quickness are mostly just rust and a game like tonight’s will serve as a WD-40 bath, allowing him to sharpen his vision and footwork.
What is certain is that two weeks from now, the Vikings can ill afford to have their starting middle linebacker playing tentatively.
The other major concern tonight will be measuring the stability on the back end of the secondary where safeties Mistral Raymond and Jamarca Sanford continue battling to join rookie Harrison Smith in the starting lineup.
After starting 15 games a year ago, Sanford has had a strong preseason and seems determined not to lose his grip on that role. But Raymond’s aggressiveness a week ago against Buffalo provided hints that he may be on the verge of a breakthrough.
On back-to-back first quarter plays, he had stops of Bills running back Fred Jackson — one in run support, the other on a dump-off. Overall, he seems to be playing more aggressively and should win the starting job.
“I think he’s feeling more comfortable in his skin,” Williams said. “He’s moving around, he’s communicating more. He has his own personality out there.”
Such assertiveness will be necessary if Williams’ goals are to be met. Right now, the Vikings defense needs to gain more certainty up the middle.