The numbers love Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, but his coaches and teammates appreciate him even more. While the defense was on the sideline during Sunday’s 39-10 win against the Chargers, cornerback Mike Hughes sought tips from the Vikings’ man in the middle.
“I’ve never seen a linebacker cover as good as he does,” Hughes said outside the visiting locker room at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, Calif. “I actually asked him [Sunday] a few tips on how to play through the hands and get the ball out, because he does a really good job of doing that.”
Which makes it all the more perplexing Kendricks, leading the Vikings in tackles for a fifth straight season, was overlooked again in Pro Bowl voting by coaches, players and fans. While he could still make the all-star game as an injury or Super Bowl replacement, he was not among the Vikings’ initial three selections.
By any metric, Kendricks is having a career year with an NFL-leading 12 pass deflections by a linebacker and 30 run stops (6th) while coming off one of his best games against the Chargers.
“The passing game, he really showed,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They tried to run, really it was the same play the Rams ran on us a year ago, he made a good play on that one. He made a good play on the tight end on the fumble. He had a couple tough matchups with Keenan Allen inside a couple times in the zones. I think probably that part, he’s really a really good pass defender.”
Let’s dive into why Kendricks was such a Pro Bowl snub, and perhaps deserves more than that ahead of All-Pro voting.
1. The Chargers tried to return the Vikings’ L.A. nightmare from a year ago, when Jared Goff threw for 465 yards in a Rams win.
Seventy of those yards and a touchdown went to a wide-open Cooper Kupp, who sailed past linebacker Anthony Barr on this beautifully schemed and executed play-action pass.
A year later, the Vikings aren’t nearly as focused on the Chargers’ run game during the same play. The Chargers’ cheaper imitation sent running back Austin Ekeler (#30), an elusive dual threat, on that Kupp route.
But where Kupp helped sell the run fake with more of a 45-degree angled release, Ekeler takes off almost vertically and neither Kendricks (#54) nor Barr bite on the play-action. Theoretically, Ekeler takes off behind both Vikings linebackers as they first read run, and is wide open like Kupp.
The initial disruption comes from Kendricks’ quick pass read and coverage drop. Ekeler starts the route behind Barr, but is forced to go under Kendricks. This puts Kendricks over the top, where his split-second reaction, quick feet and impeccable tracking keep him in position during the incompletion. Kendricks sticks his arms out with palms up over Ekeler’s outstretched hands, showing he’s playing the ball while watching the target. No flags.
2. Philip Rivers had Kendricks in his sights before the snap in the first quarter. The Chargers go five wide and the Vikings’ coverage call keeps Hughes on the far right over Ekeler, while Kendricks (#54) is manned inside on receiver Keenan Allen (#13), Rivers’ shifty top weapon. The Chargers’ play call is nothing fancy and requires receivers to win one-on-one matchups. Rivers identifies his choice with a quick throw to Allen.
Statistically, the play ends in a missed tackle for Kendricks and a 6-yard gain for the Chargers. But Kendricks did not overrun when Allen stemmed his release outside (to his right), before cutting back inside. That is no easy task for a linebacker eager to keep up with a receiver of Allen’s caliber. Kendricks’ ability to change direction and attempt the tackle was enough to prevent a big play.
3. Kendricks gains ground so quickly in coverage drops, he seemingly forced Rivers to move on to a different target Sunday, including during Jaleel Johnson’s sack on first down in the second quarter.
The Chargers are trying to spring Keenan Allen underneath with play-action meant to draw up the linebackers and deep routes to carry cornerbacks out of the picture for his deep crosser.
The Vikings appear to play a form of Cover-1 pattern matching as cornerback Trae Waynes (#26) follows Allen (#13) on the deep over route and safety Harrison Smith alone mans the middle. Safety Anthony Harris (#41) drops with no routes in his area.
Kendricks (#54) also has nobody underneath to cover as running back Melvin Gordon falls while releasing out of the backfield.
Kendricks instinctively drops, gaining about 10 yards of depth when Rivers goes to pull the trigger to Allen and hesitates. Rivers may have been able to make this throw, but he’s sacked. The backfield angle below better shows what Rivers is seeing, and it’s Kendricks in front of his intended target.
4. Kendricks really forced two fumbles in Los Angeles, while getting credit for the one on Chargers tight end Hunter Henry in the fourth quarter. He also punched the ball from Ekeler, who initially recovered Rivers’ second-quarter fumble forced by Danielle Hunter that led to the 58-yard return for a touchdown.
Another leap in Kendricks’ game this season has come by plays on the ball, which total 14 (12 pass deflections, two forced fumbles) with two games to go.
5. Fitting for a middle linebacker, Kendricks is also one of the NFL’s most fluid run stoppers and has benefited from playing behind a defensive tackle duo requiring double teams from below-average offensive lines like the Chargers.
Kendricks ranks sixth among all NFL linebackers in run stops (30) and he’s on pace to reset his career-high 32 stops from the 2016 season.
A play after Allen’s 6-yard catch against Kendricks, he plays chicken behind the line with Ekeler and chases him down for one of his 30 run stops. Defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Shamar Stephen each take up two blocks.