Xavier Rhodes was momentarily stumped when asked to name the best tackler on a Vikings defense that’s heading into Atlanta on Sunday ranked first in third-down conversions, second against the run and fifth in points allowed.
“Well,” Rhodes said, “he misses a lot, but I know everyone is afraid of him. Andrew Sendejo. He just runs. I think he just runs and dives with his eyes closed. And blows people up.”
What about Eric Kendricks?
“Eric? He’s a great tackler, but I think he’s awesome in coverage as a linebacker,” Rhodes said. “He can cover his butt off.”
But, Xav, with a 27-tackle lead over Anthony Barr, he’s well on pace to lead you fellas in tackles in each of his first three seasons. The only other guy to do that was Rip Hawkins, who did it four seasons (1961-64).
“Three years?!” Rhodes said. “I didn’t know that. That’s crazy. He just latches on and gets guys down, I guess.”
“That’s the idea,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
Especially Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Vikings (9-2) and their vaunted defense will need to contain Atlanta (7-4) and an offense that leads the league in third-down conversions (48.09 percent) and is starting to get its footing in the wake of changing coordinators, not to mention the lengthy hangover from blowing a 25-point lead in Super Bowl LI.
Even in this stat-crazed era, there is no official tally for tackles, except tackles for loss. That explains why the NFL, based on game-day observations from press box statisticians, has Kendricks with 77 tackles (47 solo), while the Vikings, based on film review by coaches, have him with 97 (60 solo).
Pro Football Focus, not a favorite locale of Zimmer’s, ranks Kendricks 69th among linebackers. The site has him with 14 missed tackles, ranking him 41st out of 49 linebackers who have played at least 60 percent of their team’s snaps.
The Vikings can counter by saying Kendricks literally crouches in the middle of a defense that’s allowing a 28.5 percent third-down conversion rate, 17.7 points per game and 3.36 yards per rush. The Vikings also have allowed only 11 10-yard runs, which leads the league and is nine better than the next two teams.
“Eric probably is the best tackler on the team,” said former Vikings middle linebacker Scott Studwell, who holds the team records for tackles in a career (1,981), a season (230) and a game (24). “Anthony has improved tremendously this year from an efficiency standpoint. His biggest problem is he tries to kill everybody. Harrison [Smith] is a really good tackler.
“Eric’s different than I was. He’s fast and he’s athletic. It’s a different game than when I played. He can undercut blocks and still go make the tackle because he’s fast enough to get there. Plus, he has great instincts and anticipation.”
The art of tackling
Kendricks was credited with four tackles for loss in a Oct. 22 win over the Baltimore Ravens. On one of them, Ravens running back Javorius Allen caught a swing pass and had 7 yards of open turf between him, Kendricks and a path to the first-down marker.
Watch the tape and you can see exactly where Kendricks’ eyes are.
“My eyes are always on their hips,” Kendricks said. “My older brother Chad played at Sacramento State. He’s in his 40s now. He would always tell me to just focus on their hips and not the head shakes and the legs moving. The hips don’t move.”
Kendricks closed quickly, used the natural leverage advantage of being 6 feet, 232 pounds, wrapped up and dropped Allen for a loss with a quiet stop you’ll never see on “SportsCenter.”
“It’s all about the angle,” Kendricks said. “It’s never been about strength and power. It’s angle and leverage. Some guys go for the big hit, but my thing is you better bring those arms with you in this league.”
Today’s coaches wish more defenders felt that strongly about wrapping up.
“I don’t know if tackling is a lost art,” Studwell said. “I think it’s probably digressed a little bit. The only time you’re tackling people is on Sundays. A lot of guys are content to just try to run through a guy rather than wrapping up.”
Studwell played from 1977 to 1990. Players practiced harder and in full pads all the time, but they didn’t do a lot of live tackling either.
“With the exception of 1984,” said Studwell, referring to the infamous one-year reign of Les Steckel. “When Les was here, we darn near tackled every day.”
Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards said the team has daily individual drills on the proper angles and body positioning players can use to finish tackles on game day. That helps, Studwell said, but only to a certain point.
“I’ve always kind of felt that tackling is about 10 percent technique and 90 percent effort,” Studwell said. “I know they teach it and I know they work on it. But the perfect form tackle, you may get presented with that situation three or four times in a season. A lot of times, you just get the guy down however you can.”
According to Studwell, the “most underrated strength” of any tackler is hand strength. He said two of the best he ever saw in that area are former teammates Joey Browner at safety and Jim Marshall at end.
“I’ve always had very strong hands, but that’s not why I was a somewhat of an efficient tackler,” Studwell said. “Joey could grab somebody with one hand and pull them down right now. And Jim Marshall. You ever seen how big his hands are?”
‘A lot of blood, sweat and tears’
Going back to his sophomore season at Herbert Hoover High School in Fresno, Calif., Kendricks has led his teams in tackles eight times in 10 seasons. Not bad for a kid who also played quarterback, running back, receiver, kicker and punter in high school.
“L.T. [LaDainian Tomlinson] was one of my favorite players,” Kendricks said. “When I scored my touchdown last year [at Tennessee], I did the L.T. flip in the end zone. Defensively, I really liked Brian Dawkins.”
Kendricks said he didn’t know who Studwell was until his rookie year when then-teammate Chad Greenway filled him in. Greenway ranks fourth in team history with 1,350 tackles.
“There was a picture of Studwell on the wall,” said Kendricks, who holds UCLA’s career mark for tackles (481). “Chad’s like, ‘See that guy up there? He’s got 1,981 tackles.’ Playing the same position, I know how unreal that is. That’s a big number. A lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
Kendricks has 328 career tackles. Just a mere 1,653 behind Studwell.
“Will it be broken?” Studwell said with a shrug. “I don’t know. If it gets broken, it gets broken.”
For now, the Vikings are simply counting on Kendricks to help them stop a Falcons offense that’s getting running back Devonta Freeman back from a concussion. Along with Tevin Coleman, that gives Atlanta two backs who have more than 500 yards rushing, identical 4.4-yard-per-carry averages and five rushing touchdowns apiece.
“I’d say my style is controlled,” Kendricks said. “I might not look the strongest, but I have very good natural strength. I’m not a big hitter. I don’t try to kill someone every time. I just try to get them down right there and then.”
That’s the idea.