EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Leslie Frazier has kept a positive tone and an optimistic outlook during his first year as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
But after their loss to Denver, Frazier let loose. He used uncharacteristic descriptions like poor and lousy for what he saw from the secondary. He wasn't as outspoken on Monday, but just as dour and maybe it's because the Vikings play Detroit and New Orleans next, two of the NFL's top five passing teams.
"If we think it was hard Sunday, it could be much, much worse," Frazier said. "So we've got to look at some things and try to figure out how we can help our guys. We'll try and come up with something."
Perhaps recently signed veteran free safety Jarrad Page can play more and starting cornerback Asher Allen can return from his shoulder problem, but beyond that, as Frazier said, "we don't have a lot of changes that we can actually make."
Antoine Winfield, Husain Abdullah, Tyrell Johnson are done for the season. Chris Cook probably is too. Cedric Griffin isn't the same after a second major knee surgery. Benny Sapp just joined the group and is still getting back in shape. The rest of the defensive backs are mostly special teamers and roster fillers.
Griffin's struggles have hurt as much as any.
"We're just so depleted, depth-wise, that we have to have him out there. I know he'd like to play better. I know he's trying to play better. It's been a tough year for him," he said.
Though the team was never in playoff contention, untimely breakdowns have stung just the same, particularly for Frazier — a former NFL cornerback — and veterans in the front seven. With one more knocked down pass or one fewer coverage lapse, the Vikings would probably have four more victories.
Tim Tebow was the latest quarterback to take advantage, with a career-best passer rating of 149.3.
"Love the guy, but you just can't let that happen," defensive tackle Kevin Williams said.
Despite his 6-1 record as a starter, low turnover total and undeniable pattern of playing well in the closing minutes, Tebow's throwing motion and footwork haven't passed the eye test standard for NFL quarterbacks. His completion percentage hasn't, either.
He sure looked like a pure pocket passer on Sunday, though.
"I would've bet my paycheck that he would not have beaten us passing the ball," defensive end Jared Allen said. "Hats off to him."
Coverage wasn't the only problem. Missed tackles were as well.
"It's hard to swallow. I didn't play my best game. I'm highly upset with myself," said safety Jamarca Sanford, who humbly answered question after question from reporters in the locker room about his performance and the state of the secondary. "But you just have to keep working, man."
Effort hasn't been the issue. After a stifling first half, the Vikings let Tebow and the Broncos get 288 yards and 28 points on 30 post-halftime plays.
Demaryius Thomas was wide open for a 21-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter, with Griffin trailing him by 10 yards and no safety help in sight. Sanford said he went toward Eric Decker once he saw Tebow's eyes go that direction. Film study on Tebow didn't show him looking off one receiver for another one.
"But evidently he's been working on his vision," Sanford said.
Tebow found Thomas again on an across-the-body throw to the middle of the field that went for a 41-yard score later in the third.
Then Thomas was so wide open along the sideline in the fourth quarter that Tebow's wobbling throw still landed squarely in his chest after he waited to catch it for a 42-yard gain. That set up the tying touchdown run by Willis McGahee.
"There should not be that type of gap," Frazier said. "We've been playing that coverage forever, and to see it played the way it was ... was just bad."
Over the last 10 years, the Vikings have drafted 14 defensive backs -- none in the first round and only three in the second round, Griffin (2006), Johnson (2008) and Cook (2010). Winfield was a productive free agent signing in 2004, but most of the rest of the spots have been filled by mid to late-round picks or undrafted projects, very few of whom have flashed long-term potential.Comment on this story
Not since the beginning of Dennis Green's tenure as coach in 1992 and 1993, actually, have the Vikings had reliable pass coverage. They were in the top seven in the league in yards allowed and the top three in touchdowns surrendered both of those years.
But even Green's playoff teams in the 1999 and 2000 seasons were ultimately doomed by a soft secondary, ranking 30th and 28th in the NFL those years in yards. Mike Tice's teams struggled against the pass, too, limiting one of the league's most-powerful offenses. The Vikings switched to their current "Tampa Two" scheme under Brad Childress and ranked 31st and 32nd in his first two seasons.
Over the last 20 years, according to research by STATS LLC, the Vikings finished in the top 10 in pass defense four times and only once (last season) since 1996. They've been in the bottom eight 10 times, three of those at 30th or worse. Yards can be an accurate barometer, but they've given up plenty of touchdowns too. The Vikings have been in the top 10 in that category seven times in 20 years, but they were 20th or worse eight times.
This year? They're dead last in the league, with 24 scores allowed through the air in 12 games.