Here’s how the conversation went between Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and his old buddy, safety George Iloka, as soon as the league office in New York ejected Harrison Smith with 1 minute, 5 seconds left in Sunday’s 31-23 win over the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium:

“I asked him on the sideline if he knows what he’s doing at safety,” Zimmer said.

Yeah, it’s been that kind of year. A proud team that’s been shedding stars and starters by the week lost another one.

Already missing Danielle Hunter, Anthony Barr, Michael Pierce and Mike Hughes, Zimmer’s defense would also have to play 31 minutes without one of the best safeties in the league after Smith was tossed for a helmet-to-helmet hit on receiver Jordan Akins. In his place would step Iloka, a guy no team wanted in 2019, and a guy who was elevated from the practice squad to be a backup nickel corner against the Texans.

But before Zim turned to Iloka, he gave referee Brad Rogers an earful of anger. Zimmer accepted the penalty but argued the ejection profusely.

“Harrison is not a dirty player, he’s never been a dirty player, and I feel like he tried to get his shoulder in there,” Zimmer said. “If they want to give us a penalty, fine, give us a penalty, but don’t eject guys. This guy’s one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best people in the NFL.”

Somehow, the Vikings weathered their perceived injustice.

With Smith out of the game, the Vikings held the Texans to two field goals on three trips into the red zone, including the game-winning stand in the closing minutes of the game, when a 4-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller over Holton Hill on fourth down was rightly overturned.

Houston came in ranked third in red zone offense, scoring touchdowns 85.7% of the time. They had first-and-goal at the 10-, 8- and 4-yard lines in their three trips and came away with six points.

Asked how Iloka did, Zimmer was kind to a guy who clearly was out of position on a couple of 24-yard touchdown passes in the second half.

“You know me, I see mistakes,” Zimmer said. “I did see a couple there. But he actually was our backup nickel today in case something happened to [Jeff] Gladney, so he was preparing most of the week at nickel.”

It helped some that Iloka played two of his six seasons in Cincinnati when Zimmer was Bengals defensive coordinator. And it helped some that Iloka was with the Vikings in a limited role in 2018. But Iloka entered Sunday’s game having played only six special teams snaps in the other game in which he was promoted from the practice squad.

Before taking over for Smith, Iloka played a few snaps at nickel corner when Cameron Dantzler left the field briefly with what appeared to be a shoulder injury.

“I think George did a good job of trying to come and be that Swiss Army knife,” safety Anthony Harris said. “He’s working hard to pick up as much as he can and be as versatile as he can. And he was able to come in and make some plays for us and allow us to play as a unit good enough to come out with a win.”

That about sums it up.

The Texans used passes of 26, 43 and 16 yards to earn their first-and-goal situations. After that, they ran 10 plays. Deshaun Watson was 0-for-5 passing with a sack. And there were four runs for 1 yard.

“They battled,” Zimmer said of his depleted defense, which included three of five linebackers who weren’t on the team when training camp started.

Here’s how Houston’s last four offensive snaps went:

• David Johnson tackled just short of the goal line on first-and-goal at the 4.

• Johnson stopped by Iloka and Harris for no gain.

• Johnson tackled for a 4-yard loss by Iloka after dropping a pitch from Watson.

• Pass incomplete.

The day was not perfect, but, as Zimmer said, “It was nice to see them compete and fight.”


Mark Craig did not travel to Houston for Sunday’s game. He wrote this account after watching the television broadcast and participating in interviews via videoconference. Twitter: @markcraigNFL