The Vikings’ four safeties — Harrison Smith, Anthony Harris, Jayron Kearse and Andrew Sendejo — have started games together across at least four NFL seasons. Smith, a Pro Bowler, has been the key member of that group, and is the only one with a contract that extends to next season.
The team’s outlook at safety for Monday night’s game at Seattle is also uncertain with Smith and Harris limited by injuries. According to Kearse, the two starters have been “in and out” during 11-on-11 practice reps this week, ceding first-team snaps to Sendejo and Kearse in preparation for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
The injuries come at a poor time as Vikings coaches devoted much of the bye week to repairing the pass defense, but they’ll lean on familiarity regardless of which safeties start at Seattle.
“It’s probably hard to look around the league and find something like this,” said Kearse, the group’s least experienced at 60 Vikings games. “I’ve been with the same group of guys since I’ve been here, as well as Anthony. It’s been a big help for us, just our relationship and helping each other out.”
Smith (hamstring) and Harris (groin) remained limited in Friday’s practice, after which Zimmer wouldn’t take questions about their chances to play Monday night. Smith, injured at the end of the Nov. 17 victory over the Broncos, is known for a high pain tolerance, but hamstring injuries have proved troublesome. Zimmer admitted the Vikings’ challenge this week is “a little different” in preparing all of his safeties for Wilson and the fifth-ranked Seahawks offense.
“I’m comfortable with them,” Zimmer said of the safety depth. “They’re all smart guys and they all understand what we’re trying to do each week. This week is a little different, trying to make sure — [the Seahawks] have got some real good weapons at wideout and obviously the quarterback is really a great player — so [we’re all] trying to understand the game plan, but no, we feel good about it.”
Harris, who injured a groin two weeks ago during practice and missed the Broncos game, said he is a “positive person” when asked if he would play in Seattle. He has grown from an undrafted Virginia prospect into an NFL starter, but Harris is only under contract for an additional five regular-season games.
“Only future I’m looking at is tomorrow really,” Harris said after removing the plastic that held ice on his right thigh. “Just right now, I’m not even looking that far. I love the game of football, love playing it. It’s a great locker room. The guys here are great. So, I’m just focusing on winning, having fun and enjoying the process and enjoying the moment.”
Kearse, a 2016 seventh-round pick, is in the last season of his rookie contract. He said there have not yet been contract extension talks between his representatives and the Vikings.
“Not that I know of,” said Kearse, who was a special teams captain before his Oct. 27 drunken driving arrest in Minneapolis. “They handle all that. When they come together and they’re ready to make a move, that’s what it’ll be.”
Wilson’s moves have often tested opposing safeties.
Only the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, who threw for 364 yards and four touchdowns vs. the Vikings in October, throws deep more than Wilson (17.6%), according to Pro Football Focus. And nobody has gained more yards on those deep throws — categorized as passes at least 20 yards downfield — than Wilson’s 926 yards.
“When he starts to scramble,” Zimmer said, “he throws such a great deep ball that a lot of bad things can happen.”
Twelve days before Monday night, Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes said he pulled out his team-issued tablet to start watching film cutups of Wilson. One throw stirred Rhodes as if he were the 49ers safety beaten on a 3-yard touchdown throw during Seattle’s overtime victory over San Francisco this month.
On a bootleg rollout to his right, Wilson threw across his body and off his back foot with a 49ers defender in his face. The pass arched over San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt’s shoulder and landed in the arms of tight end Jacob Hollister as he fell into the back of the end zone.
Vikings defenders know Wilson’s play tends to leave opponents with more questions than answers.
“Plays like that,” Rhodes said. “You’re in tight coverage and he just runs off to the other side, flips it and the tight end falls into the catch — perfect throw. What do you do?”