He keeps mentioning eyes. His. Aaron Rodgers’. Mike Zimmer’s. Especially Mike Zimmer’s.
Captain Munnerlyn felt Zimmer’s gaze often last year. Munnerlyn had signed with the Vikings as a veteran cornerback who expected to start. You can visit a dozen websites searching for clues as to discern his performance this year, or you can save a lot of time by watching Munnerlyn imitate Zimmer’s attitude change toward him over the last calendar year.
“He was always giving me the look,” Munnerlyn said, mimicking Zimmer’s sideways glance and grimace. “I wasn’t playing well, and he was giving me this look. It’s a whole lot better this year, and I’m very happy about that.
“He kept looking at me like, ‘I’m going to get somebody else in here in a minute.’ I know what that look means. I can figure out what he’s saying in his head. I know there’s probably some cursing in there. I was always thinking, ‘Man, he’s probably letting me have it right now — in his head.’ ”
This year, Zimmer asked Munnerlyn to become his third, or “nickel,” cornerback, behind starters Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman. Munnerlyn has responded with surer tackling, better coverage and an important-if-reduced role on the NFL’s second-ranked scoring defense.
Which has him worrying about a different set of eyes this week. Sunday, the Vikings have a chance to take a two-game lead in the NFC North by beating the Green Bay Packers at TCF Bank Stadium. It is the biggest game the Vikings have played since Zimmer and Munnerlyn arrived, and Munnerlyn is offering advice to younger players about facing Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ all-universe quarterback.
“You can’t have bad eyes,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your eyes on your luggage. As soon as you look away from your guy, Rodgers is throwing it to him. Rodgers puts the ball where only his guy can catch it. He’s very special.
“I don’t care if they’ve lost three in a row. I just know these guys are going to be hungry. They know if they lose this one, they fall behind, and it’s going to be hard to catch up.”
“That means that if you’re playing man-to-man, and you peek back at the quarterback, Rodgers makes you pay for it. In that split second he can put the ball where you can’t get it, and all of a sudden you’re having to run a guy down.
‘‘And nine times out of 10 in this league, you’re not going to be able to run guys down. So you can’t have bad eyes.”
Munnerlyn’s improved play and the signing of Newman, the reigning NFC defensive player of the week, have given the Vikings an unusual advantage against the Packers. One of the reasons Green Bay is 9-1-1 against the Vikings this decade is the array of options Rodgers usually has when these franchises play.
With star receiver Jordy Nelson out for the season, the Packers are relying on Randall Cobb as a No. 1 receiver and the talented-but-erratic Davante Adams as their No. 2.
Last year, the Vikings needed Munnerlyn or Josh Robinson to play opposite Rhodes.
This year, with Newman and Munnerlyn playing well, the Vikings haven’t even missed the injured Robinson.
“He’s improved tremendously,” Zimmer said of Munnerlyn. “He’s doing the things we ask him to do. I think he’s much more focused on his job and how he can do better with it.
‘‘I think he’s been more involved in the running game, more involved in some of the quick passes and screens that we’ve got. Probably in every phase, he’s improved.”
Munnerlyn credits an attitude change, “getting back to what got me to the NFL — that feistiness.” And his improved play has allowed his witty, gregarious personality to resurface. A muscular 5 feet 9, with a raspy voice and an active sense of humor, Munnerlyn could be mistaken for a cousin of the high-energy comedian Kevin Hart.
“Where did you get that?” Munnerlyn said, seemingly offended. “I’m much taller than Kevin Hart.’
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On