The Carolina Panthers were in pursuit of a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter Sunday when a pair of unproductive runs put them in a third-and-11 from the Vikings’ 12, with Teddy Bridgewater in the shotgun and three receivers to his right.
From his position in the Vikings’ nickel defense, linebacker Eric Kendricks first reacted to Curtis Samuel’s vertical route from the slot, then shifted his attention to Robby Anderson’s shallow crossing route once Samuel ran out of his zone. Kendricks followed Anderson to the middle of the field, with his eyes back on Bridgewater.
When the quarterback’s throw was too far in front of Mike Davis’ angle route, Kendricks stepped in front of the running back to snatch it, ending an opponent’s drive short of U.S. Bank Stadium’s end zone for the third consecutive week.
“College definitely prepared me for that. I had a lot of the same responsibilities [at UCLA],” Kendricks said. “But as far as me, my progressions now in the NFL have changed a lot more. I have to be more conscious of the actual combinations of routes, and I try to look things up a little bit more and keep my eyes on the route combinations a little bit longer before I turn back to the quarterback and get eyes on the quarterback. I think that inevitably helps, whether it’s the safeties behind me or defensive backs. I try to help them as much as possible.”
As the Vikings’ efforts to indoctrinate a new group of cornerbacks continue, they’ve been aided by a special playmaking knack from Kendricks and Eric Wilson, who’ve intercepted more passes than any linebackers in the league and made four of their six combined interceptions with opponents threatening to score.
The 2020 Vikings are the first team since 2016, and the fifth since 2010, to have two linebackers record three interceptions in the same season.
The Vikings and Eagles are the only teams in the NFL this season not to have a cornerback record an interception. While the Eagles are tied with the Texans for the fewest picks in the league (three), the Vikings are in the middle of the league with nine, thanks to the six from their linebackers and three more from Harrison Smith.
“The thing is they’re not one-dimensional either,” said Smith of Kendricks and Wilson. “They’re really great against the run. They’re great against the pass. They’re involved in the rush game, put pressure on the quarterback, sacks. It does a lot for us.”
Coach Mike Zimmer has never preached interceptions at the expense of sound coverage technique, but as the Vikings have given the ball away more often this season (their 19 turnovers are the sixth most in the league, and only one shy of their total from all of 2019), they’re well aware of the impact a few takeaways of their own can have on the flow of a game.
“I don’t think we’ve done enough of that, getting fumble recoveries and things of that nature,” Smith said. “But what we have done is we’ve had really timely turnovers. Red zone interceptions, blocked field goals — that’s not a turnover, but it essentially acts as a turnover. So there’s some big turnovers in those situations, but we definitely need more in all areas.”
The Vikings used a second-round pick in 2015 on Kendricks, Anthony Barr’s college teammate, with a view toward making him their middle linebacker. But Wilson’s road to a key role on the defense took more time after he signed with the Vikings as an undrafted free agent in 2017.
Even during the team’s spring program that year, though, coaches whispered about how they thought they might have something in the Cincinnati product.
“His first preseason game against Buffalo, he was making plays on the ball all over the place,” co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer said last month. “We were actually talking about that today. He was tipping balls, getting interceptions or forcing fumbles, so he’s kind of been like that the whole time we’ve had him.
“In college, we recruited him heavily to be a college free agent because of his playmaking ability. He had over, I think it was over 120 tackles his senior year. He’s always been around the football and found a way to get to the football, and he works extremely hard at studying and being in the right position and he’s improved tremendously over these last four years.”
Wilson also has three sacks, helping the Vikings compensate for losing Barr to a torn pectoral muscle. Wilson’s done so while Kendricks might be exceeding what he did in his first All-Pro season in 2019. His 25 run stops are tied for the fifth most in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, and his three interceptions are a career high.
“I say that every year, it’s the best he’s ever played,” Adam Zimmer said. “Because he’s constantly improving. He’s gotten so many reps now he doesn’t have to think about the route concepts that are coming or the coverage scheme we’re playing, he’s just reacting to what he sees. I watched the mic’d up video of him [from Sunday’s game over the Panthers] yesterday and he’s saying, ‘The run’s coming here,’ or ‘The run is coming here.’ He just knows where things are going to be because of experience and the more he’s played.
“He’s done a great job of just improving his game each and every game, and I’m going to say that probably every year he’s here, that’s the best he’s played. Because that’s the type of guy he is. He’s not satisfied with being an All-Pro last year. He wants to be the best linebacker in the NFL.”
Said Kendricks: “I just try not to be limited really. I try to always learn. There’s always new concepts, there’s always ways of beating things. So I’m always trying to adjust, especially as the game goes on. I take pride in that.”
What he’s done with Wilson this year, in a season where Barr and Danielle Hunter are out for the year and the Vikings’ corners are brand-new, has made life easier for many on the defense.
“The middle of the field, the underneath areas, you know they’re going to get their run-pass keys really well and get depth on passes, make tackles for no gain or, you know, a loss of yards on run plays,” Smith said. “It really does, it settles guys on the back end.”