Every week following the Access Vikings Game Plan podcast, we’ll delve deeper into who Andrew Krammer pegged as the potential difference maker for the upcoming game.
Thirteen missed tackles, 230 rushing yards and a season-opening loss.
That’s the nightmare Mike Zimmer and the Vikings are trying to avoid in Tennessee on Sunday, one year after the debacle in Santa Clara in which the San Francisco 49ers ran the ball down the throats of what became one of the league’s best defenses.
Improved play against the run was one of a dozen edicts issued by Zimmer during a team meeting one July evening. Surely DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, the Titans’ new backfield duo, were on his mind. And the preseason might not have put him at ease. Sans middle linebacker Eric Kendricks, the Vikings displayed a familiar unevenness in exhibitions as last year’s 4.3 yards allowed per carry.
“It’s hard to evaluate when, number one, you’re not game planning,” Zimmer said this week. “And number two, you’re missing some guys.”
Zimmer was cautious with a handful of injured starters and did not push them unnecessarily into preseason play. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and cornerback Xavier Rhodes played sparingly. And after a strong start to camp, Kendricks tweaked his hamstring during an Aug. 6 night practice and was shut down for games even though he returned to practice before the Aug. 28 kickoff against San Diego. When most, if not all, starters were playing last month, the Vikings defense allowed 5.6 yards per carry (25 for 141) and a touchdown in three exhibitions.
“You can statistically look at the first group,” Zimmer said of evaluating preseason play. “Which was minus three guys in the first group for most of the preseason.”
Enter Kendricks, the second-year linebacker who was the Vikings’ leading tackler as a rookie in 12 starts. He’s not on the injury report and is expected to start Sunday.
“Kendricks probably would make a big difference,” Zimmer added of the preseason.
He’s quick-footed, instinctual and eager, sometimes to a fault when that can put him out of position. Kendricks also led the team with 12 missed tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus. So when faced with the triple-threat runners in Murray, Henry and Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota, Zimmer needs Kendricks on top of his game.
Kendricks’ speed is something the Vikings missed when starting Audie Cole this preseason. Cole was one culprit, diving at the feet of Philip Rivers on Melvin Gordon’s 39-yard touchdown, for which Zimmer blamed himself after dialing up a zero blitz.
The Vikings hope Kendricks can pick up where he left off at the end of last season. His eight defensive stops in the Vikings’ NFC North-clinching win at Green Bay were the most in the league that week without a missed tackle, per PFF. Last year, his quickness showed best in coverage, where he won the nickel job during his rookie camp even though he didn’t start in the middle until Week 4.
Kendricks is a versatile piece for Zimmer given how he can knife through blockers on blitz assignments and runs, while being able to cover tight ends.
During the playoff loss against Seattle, Kendricks led the Vikings with two pass deflections and eight combined tackles, including this takedown of Fred Jackson. First, Kendricks flows with the formation while reading the backfield. After the handoff, he sidesteps center Patrick Lewis and adjusts the opposite direction to wrap up Jackson for a gain of just two yards on 1st and 10.
The Vikings could use this version of Kendricks on Sunday, nine months after he last tackled in a game. Does that mean he has some rust to knock away?
“It could and it couldn’t,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “Out here at practice, when we’ve got opportunities he’s taking good angles, he understands leverage, those types of deals.”