George Iloka paused for seven seconds, navigating the question like a Vikings coverage assignment he couldn’t afford to bust.
Under coach Mike Zimmer, one mistake by a Vikings defensive back could mean being benched for one play or the entire game as seemed to be the case with Iloka, a seventh-year NFL safety, in last week’s 30-20 loss to the Saints.
Iloka started, but played only five snaps. On his fifth play, Saints receiver Michael Thomas ran past him and caught a 44-yard pass from Taysom Hill — the Saints’ versatile backup quarterback who had 18 runs to only two pass attempts entering the Week 8 matchup. Iloka played only special teams the rest of the game, with safety Anthony Harris getting the remaining 49 defensive snaps.
Iloka is one of the more candid players in the Vikings locker room. But he paused for seven seconds, letting silence answer the question if he got benched after that play.
“That’s all I got for you,” Iloka finally said.
So, is that an example of Zimmer seeking perfection in his defensive backs?
“Yeah, he’s definitely a perfectionist,” Iloka said. “So, yeah, you’ve got to be a perfectionist.”
Entering Sunday’s game against the Lions, the first of three consecutive pivotal NFC North games, players in the Vikings secondary knows by both coaching and experience that nothing short of mental perfection is expected. Zimmer’s impatience has made a couple appearances in 2018’s uneven first half for the defense.
“I mean, I try not to have too quick of a hook,” Zimmer said. “But usually the guys that are playing are the guys of whatever package that was.”
A relatively deep Vikings secondary has armed Zimmer with the ability to install defensive packages with many young players, from safety Jayron Kearse to now-injured rookie cornerback Mike Hughes.
Critical errors can change those plans.
Kearse learned the hard way in his one and only NFL start to date, in Week 8 at Chicago during his 2016 rookie season. On the third snap, Kearse took a bad angle that led to a 69-yard run by Bears running back Jordan Howard.
Zimmer pulled Kearse after the play. He got a handful of snaps on the next series, but Kearse didn’t play at all in the second half and received only 10 defensive snaps in the rest of 2016.
“Yeah, he’s definitely not afraid to do that,” Kearse said. “It’s been done around here on a few occasions, so we know when we get out there, we have to go out there and do our job. If we can’t do our job, he’ll find someone that can.”
Rookie or veteran, the quick hook doesn’t discriminate — but it does focus on mental errors, according to Zimmer.
Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, one of the highest-paid NFL defenders, was yanked by Zimmer from the Vikings’ Week 4 loss in Los Angeles after his second penalty for defensive holding in the first half and subsequent unsportsmanlike conduct for kicking the penalty flag.
Rhodes needed to cool down, but the next play was a Rams touchdown on a 47-yard pass from Jared Goff to receiver Brandin Cooks, whom Rhodes had been successfully shadowing before his outburst led Zimmer to pull him from the game.
“It just depends on the situation, my mood,” Zimmer said. “If guys are making mental mistakes, that’s when I get upset. Guys get beat physically sometimes, and that’s different.”
It’s a fine line to walk. NFL players like to say experience is the best teacher, but having those chances taken away can also leave a lasting impression. Kearse, who got benched three snaps into his first NFL start, said he keeps that 69-yard run in his mind. He said it’s what taught him NFL opportunities are earned and not given.
“After the coaches put their belief in us throughout the week and we go out there and make a bad play, it’s kind of like a slap in the face,” Kearse said. “So, it comes with it.