I asked Andrew Sendejo in the locker room on Sunday to describe his intentions as he closed in on Ravens receiver Mike Wallace like a 210-pound missile three minutes into that day’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Tackle the guy; get the football,” the Vikings safety said.
Prompted by the previous week’s controversy surrounding Anthony Barr’s hit on Aaron Rodgers, I asked the fearless-hitting Sendejo to share a defender’s thought process in that split-second he has to consider the NFL’s rules against blows to the head.
“Just tackle the guy,” he said. “People don’t realize how fast it happens. It’s not like there’s time to say, ‘Oh, let me hit him here [points to my left shoulder]’ or, ‘Oh, let me hit him there [right shoulder].’
“You just go in as fast as you can and make the tackle. Sometimes, it’s unfortunate that guys get hit in the head. I wasn’t aiming for his head. That’s just football.”
I wrote a brief gameday Extra Point on the play and included Sendejo’s wishes that Wallace, who suffered a game-ending concussion, recover in time to play this week. A day later, this play became a bigger topic of discussion when the NFL suspended Sendejo for one game because of the hit.
Jon Runyan, NFL vice president of football operations, said the violation was “flagrant and warrants suspension because it could have been avoided … [and] was violently directed at the head and neck area …”
Wallace ran a slant, caught the ball and took a few steps while cornerback Xavier Rhodes was trying to tackle him and rip the ball free. Sendejo raced from the other side of the field and landed a direct blow to the left side of Wallace’s helmet. Although Sendejo’s helmet delivered only a glancing blow, his right shoulder hit the head with such force that Wallace’s helmet popped off.
A day later, just hours before Sendejo’s suspension was announced, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer protested the penalty and told reporters he was going to send the play to the league office for explanation.
“I think the receiver took five steps after he caught the ball and I think [Sendejo] hit him with a glancing blow,” Zimmer said. “[Wallace] established position as a runner, took two extra steps and Xavier was trying to pull the ball out, which he ended up doing.”
Sendejo’s track record no doubt played a role in a suspension that would cost him $173,529. He was fined $24,309 for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Buccaneers tight end Cameron Brate in Week 2.
“I know they’re just trying to keep the game safe, but I’m obviously not aiming for the head,” Sendejo said. “I don’t think there are dirty guys in the league who are just trying to hit guys in the head. It just happens.”
Three days before Sendejo’s hit, I talked to Vikings free safety Harrison Smith about how he has adjusted his style of play since his wild, fine-riddled rookie season in 2012.
“My mentality was I’m young and reckless and I was like, ‘I’m just going to hit everything. I don’t care,’ ” Smith said. “I still want to hit everything, but you got to do it legally. Lower your target and take your head out of it.”
Then we actually talked about a hard, legal hit that Sendejo made at Chicago earlier this season. The officials picked up a flag and announced that Sendejo had stayed within the rules with a crushing shoulder shot to the receiver’s chest.
“Everybody talks about how the game is played now compared to how it was back in the day,” Smith said. “My thing is play within the rules of your era. The game obviously has changed.
“If you’re trying to play the right way and things go wrong, that’s OK. What you can’t do is just say, ‘I don’t care about hitting guys in the head,’ because, ultimately, you’re going to have a good chance of hurting somebody, hurting yourself or hurting your team with penalties and getting suspended.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL