EDEN PRAIRIE (AP) -- The Minnesota Vikings' first 10 optional team practices have been geared more toward the youngsters, with a heavy emphasis placed on teaching and getting the rookies and newcomers up to speed.
Most of the veteran starters are not participating in the on-field work, remaining inside for weight lifting and conditioning.
Then there are Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson, a safety tandem with a combined eight years of NFL seasoning who started all but one game together last season. They were out there on the field backpedaling and going through the basics of Minnesota's Cover 2 defense.
Optional or not, Williams and Johnson have been mainstays throughout the early portion of the Vikings' offseason program, a telling sign for two players who were criticized last season as being the soft spot of the defense.
"The more reps you get, the more knowledge you get," said Johnson, who is entering his third season. "Understanding, everything comes together the more you play. So it's extremely important to get out here for every OTA and get these extra reps. You always learn something different every year."
On their way to the NFC title game, the Vikings continued their reputation as staunch against the run, ranking second in the league in rush defense. But they were 19th in pass defense, and Williams and Johnson had just one interception between them.
"Gotta do better. Can always do better," Johnson said Wednesday. "Continue to work. Play hard, pray even harder. ... Sometimes you go through the season, you get down and you have to remember to keep your spirits up and you'll do well."
Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier's scheme requires both players to hang back, serving more as safety nets than aggressive playmakers, and it has taken a while for both players to adjust to the role.
Frazier was asked last week if he thought the Vikings have two starting-caliber safeties on the roster, and he gave both Williams and Johnson a vote of confidence.
"Madieu Williams and Tyrell Johnson are going to be two guys who are going to improve each year they are with us," Frazier said. "We think they'll improve again this next season and get better."
Coach Brad Childress has been encouraged by the active roles that both have taken. Johnson is entering his third NFL season, Williams his seventh.
"Madieu has a great way about him coming back and getting involved," Childress said. "I think the communication will be much more streamlined."
The Vikings lured Williams away from Cincinnati in 2008 but has yet to perform to the expectations that come with a $33 million contract. He only played in nine games in 2008 because of a neck injury and didn't force a single turnover last year in 16 starts during the regular season.
"We feel we have some guys who can push them a little bit. ... Nothing is engraved in stone at this point," Frazier said. "It's still competition. They realize that in the National Football League you have to come and compete every year. They know that."
The Vikings also have Jamarca Sanford, a seventh-round draft pick in 2009 who impressed with his aggressiveness and figures to push for playing time in the back end. Another intriguing option could be St. Louis Rams safety Oshiomogho Atogwe, who hit the free agent market Wednesday.
"My only competition is Madieu Williams," Williams said. "I've been playing way too long to be worrying about somebody else, or my job. I don't decide who plays. The only thing I can do is prepare and do the best I can. Whoever is making the decisions will do that."