The sequence unfolded like a multiple choice question on a test. Eric Kendricks had two options: Pursue the mobile quarterback who had escaped the pocket with room to run, or stay in pass coverage.
He had a split second to decide.
The Vikings All-Pro linebacker found himself between a Deshaun and a hard place in the second quarter last week. One of the NFL’s most elusive quarterbacks, Houston’s Deshaun Watson, was on the move but also still looking to throw. Kendricks had coverage on slot receiver Brandin Cooks, who broke outside toward the sideline initially, then pivoted back to the middle of the field as Watson scrambled to an opening.
Kendricks noticed Watson gesture with his hand. He also read his eyes. He stayed back. Kendricks lunged to his right, fully extended, to deflect the pass intended for Cooks for a third-down breakup.
The play happened so fast, and so naturally, that the degree of difficulty on Kendrick’s part might have seemed routine, almost easy. It wasn’t.
“That’s an extremely difficult play,” said Vikings co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer, who is Kendricks’ position coach. “Only a handful of linebackers are going to make that play.”
Those kind of splash plays should reinforce an appreciation for Kendricks’ versatility as an ideal modern-day linebacker. He plays the run and pass with equal effectiveness — both at an elite level — which is why he is ranked among the NFL’s best at his position. He is a tackling machine who also tied for the league lead among linebackers in pass breakups in 2019.
Kendricks’ first-team All-Pro selection last season brought deserved recognition. He’s playing as good, if not better, this season, according to his coaches.
“I’ve had linebackers that have a natural feel for finding the ball in the run game and have the ability to get their body into tight spaces to get to the ball,” co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “But I’ve never been around a guy that has that kind of instinct in the passing game also. I think that’s something that makes Eric unique.”
Kendricks has been a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy start for the Vikings defense. He leads the NFL in tackles with 45 and is on pace to lead his team for a sixth consecutive season.
His presence Sunday night after nursing a foot injury this week will be critical as the Vikings attempt to slow down Russell Wilson and a Seahawks offense that ranks in the top three leaguewide in scoring and yards produced.
The Vikings defense is vulnerable in multiple areas. Injuries to key players and youth in the secondary have created a double whammy effect.
Kendricks remains one reliable constant. He is a star in his prime performing at peak level.
The demands on linebackers have shifted along with the NFL’s transformation to a passing league. Being a run stuffer isn’t enough. Their value is enhanced by being able to hold up in pass coverage, whether it’s covering new hybrid tight ends, running backs coming out of the back field, or even wide receivers if needed.
Kendricks’ speed gives him an advantage in different situations. He routinely wrecks running plays designed to stretch the defense horizontally because he’s fast to the ball. His quickness shows up in pass coverage, too.
He calls it “finding the rock.”
“He has natural instincts in the passing game and how to fit on running backs and receivers and put himself in position to get his hands on balls,” Patterson said. “I think that’s really special for a linebacker.”
Zimmer listed “instincts” first when asked to name Kendricks’ best attributes, though, he noted, “Eric has a lot of great attributes.”
Kendricks cited three requirements a linebacker must possess to excel in pass coverage: Always be aware of down and distance; take good angles and show good recognition; be willing to take chances.
“Trust yourself,” he said.
The Vikings defense is not easy to trust right now. Kendricks is the exception.