The play that Jerry Gray offered up as an example of the evolution of safety Andrew Sendejo was the one that sealed the Vikings’ Week 5 win over the Houston Texans.
Third quarter. Third and long. The Texans were desperate to get back in the game.
The Vikings blitzed five defenders while leaving Sendejo and fellow safety Harrison Smith back deep, each of them responsible for half of the field in zone coverage.
Texans slot receiver Jaelen Strong streaked straight down the field, threatening to split the two safeties. Texans rookie wideout Will Fuller ran a deep in route behind Strong, sprinting 15 yards before swerving left toward the middle of the field.
In the past, Sendejo, a hard hitter on the field and a thrill-seeker off it, might have gotten antsy and attacked Fuller’s route, creating an opening for a big offensive play. In this instance, Sendejo stayed home and eliminated the deepest threat, Strong.
He had to travel only about a dozen yards to intercept Brock Osweiler’s overthrow in the middle of the field, right on the Vikings’ Norseman logo at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Last year was really his first year playing on a steady basis. So he came in and was eager to make all of the plays,” Gray, the team’s veteran defensive backs coach, said this week. “I think this year he’s understanding that … you can’t be so eager to go do [somebody else’s] job. That’s his nature. He wants to be aggressive.”
That’s Sendejo. He attacks life. This past offseason, the Vikings’ version of Evel Knievel rappelled 38 stories down the face of a high-rise to help raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The 29-year-old also began training to obtain his helicopter pilot’s license.
“In everything that I do, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it all out,” Sendejo said.
But Sendejo’s more patient approach this season has kept him out of highlights of opposing players and in the good graces of coach Mike Zimmer, who openly stated back in February that he felt the Vikings could find a better fit next to Smith, their star safety, and then acted on it by signing Michael Griffin, a two-time Pro Bowler, in free agency.
Sendejo, a survivor who six years ago was a United Football League afterthought, never allowed Griffin or one of the Vikings’ young safeties to make it a competition. And in his second season next to Smith, he has helped solidify the NFL’s sixth-ranked pass defense.
“He’s kind of a good reflection of how the team has handled the season so far as far as just doing your job, showing up, putting in the work and not getting distracted by things you can’t control,” Smith said. “He’s just been getting better and better and better. And that’s just who he is as a person. He’s going to do whatever it takes.”
A strong safety for most of his pro career, Sendejo was used to being in the box, where he could barrel into ball-carriers, until he replaced Robert Blanton at free safety in 2015. With Zimmer often placing the versatile Smith near the line, Sendejo was usually the last line of defense and at times was a liability in deep coverage.
During his season review session with Sendejo in January, Gray told the safety what he needed to work on. Becoming more reliable in deep coverage was atop the list.
A month later, Zimmer, asked about the safety situation at the NFL scouting combine, said Smith could be even more impactful “if he had the right kind of guy next to him.” Asked if that right kind of guy was on the roster, he replied, “I don’t know.”
The Vikings ultimately re-signed Sendejo, a free-agent-to-be, to a four-year, $16 million contract with $2.5 million guaranteed. But there were no guarantees about a starting spot on defense for Sendejo, whom the Vikings also view as a special-teams standout.
“You’ve got to perform every game, and if you don’t, they’ll find someone else. That’s just how it is. You have to be mature about it. I didn’t get really too caught up in all of that,” he says now. “I just wanted want to go out there and play hard and do what I always do and things will sort themselves out. I just try to control what I can.”
In 2016, the suddenly-steady Sendejo, comfortable in his role and perhaps a bit more cautious, has played a big part in the Vikings controlling the deep passing game, so much that even Zimmer conceded earlier this month that Sendejo has been better in coverage.
“He’s smart … and he’s in the right place the majority of the time,” said Zimmer, who wants his defensive backs to worry about preventing big plays more than producing their own.
With Sendejo lining up deep on about three-fourths of his snaps, they have allowed only five of 21 passes that traveled at least 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to be completed, according to Pro Football Focus. When targeting the deep middle, opposing quarterbacks have thrown as many completions (two) as interceptions.
“Most of the balls have been outside the numbers,” Gray said, “ and I think it’s a tribute to him because he hasn’t vacated the middle of the field. He’s been back there.”