MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings' secondary began Sunday with Chris Cook and Jamarca Sanford back on the field, and reason to believe they could turn things around against Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who had been struggling all season.
They ended it with a scheduled MRI for their best defensive back (Harrison Smith), their first-round pick at corner (Xavier Rhodes) and a fresh set of questions about the men who were left on the field during a 35-10 loss.
The Vikings' anemic secondary looked like as big a problem as ever against Newton, who hit 20 of his 26 passes for 242 yards and three touchdowns on his way to a career-high 143.4 passer rating, and depending on how long Smith (who has turf toe) and Rhodes (who hurt his ankle) are out, things could get even worse. The Vikings' next game is against the 0-6 New York Giants, but Eli Manning is averaging 286.8 yards per game, and the Vikings' two games after that are against Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo.
Minnesota's issues on Sunday, according to coach Leslie Frazier, weren't completely attributable to the secondary. The Vikings gave up 131 yards rushing on 39 carries, allowing the Panthers to hold the ball for 36:27 and taking away some of the Vikings' help in pass coverage.
"No doubt that makes a difference," Frazier said. "You start playing single-high [safety] when you're having coverage in the secondary. You expose those guys and it creates some dilemmas for your defense."
But a blown coverage was at the heart of Brandon LaFell's 79-yard touchdown in the first minute of the third quarter; the Vikings were in zone coverage on third-and-3 when Josh Robinson didn't get deep enough on LaFell, leaving him open when Rhodes ran upfield with Ted Ginn. Rhodes wound up following Ginn to Sanford, and no one was covering LaFell, which made it seem like Rhodes might have been playing man coverage when he should have been taking a deep zone away from the Panthers. But Robinson blamed himself for not dropping deep enough.
"I just have to be in better position, get on that route and take it away," Robinson said.
Said Frazier: "We were in zone coverage and someone has to carry that route up the field. In that zone coverage, we should not give up a long touchdown and somebody should be there to at least get a tackle."
And the Vikings were again unable to get off the field, allowing the Panthers to convert seven of their 12 third downs, as well as a pair of fourth downs -- including one where Steve Smith beat Robinson on a crossing route for a touchdown.
"That was tough coverage for the guy who was in coverage in man," Frazier said. "They executed better than we did in that situation and in two fourth-down situations."
Robinson had allowed 35 catches in 38 targets, according to Pro Football Focus, and came off the field in nickel coverage for a while on Sunday before Rhodes left. Frazier said the Vikings had planned to rotate Robinson and Marcus Sherels in the slot, though it's worth noting the Vikings didn't use Sherels until after Robinson gave up the touchdown to Smith.
"There are some things we want him to do better," Frazier said of Robinson. "We rotated Marcus in there with him some and we'll evaluate it this week and just see what's going on at that position."