The 2018 version of the Minnesota Vikings’ defense has something that they generally have not been about to boast about in past years under Mike Zimmer: Depth at the safety position.
With the late signing of veteran George Iloka, the Vikings showed last week that they not only can survive an injury to a starting safety, they can use different packages and looks to frustrate opposing offenses.
In last Sunday’s 27-17 win over the Arizona Cardinals, superstar safety Harrison Smith played all 58 snaps while Iloka was in for 43, Anthony Harris played 15 and third-year DB Jayron Kearse for five plays.
“It’s really helped us,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said of the team’s secondary depth. “Different packages that we use with different guys as far as matchups from week to week and what teams are giving us.”
The Vikings lost cornerback Mike Hughes for the season on Sunday with a torn ACL. While that certainly hurts their ability to make up for another injury in the secondary, Zimmer’s defense can still throw different looks at the opposition, including the “big nickel,” which includes Kearse — a safety by trade — playing the nickel cornerback spot.
“I just think it allows us and execute with a bigger matchup on a receiver,” Edwards said. “When you start looking at it, whether it is a receiver or tight end, both of those guys have big height, have good speed and good cover skills. For us, that’s a bonus and whatever package we feel like is the best matchup, they will allow us to be able to do it.”
Considering the Vikings very rarely used more than two safeties in the past because of injury — even in any type of rotation — seeing four of them play against the Cards came as somewhat of a surprise. The veteran Harris, who has largely been a special teams contributor, intercepted quarterback Josh Rosen on a play in which he and Smith rotated just before the snap.
“Anthony started quite a few games for us here over the course of his tenure here and has done a good job,” Edwards said. “I think about the big play he made last week. You go back to last year, the big play he made against the Rams. Arizona the year before, out there on third….Then adding George [Iloka] to the mix who has a good skillset allows us to do some things underneath, whether he is back, whether he is pressuring, all of those types of deals. That helps us out matchup-wise as we prepare the different packages from week to week.”
The Vikings used their safeties as a big part of the pass rush against Rosen, rushing Smith four times and both Harris and Iloka once. Zimmer’s club is sending blitzes at one of the highest rates in the NFL.
These defenses like to BRING THE HEAT!
Also: Get ready to see some blitzing tonight in the #DENvsAZ game…#BeRedSeeRed #Browns #RavensFlock #TitanUp #Jets #HereWeGo #BroncosCountry #Colts #ChiefsKingdom #FlyEaglesFly pic.twitter.com/Kkc11OYOcV
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) October 18, 2018
Starting safety Andrew Sendejo has not practiced each of the last two days, making it very likely he will miss the team’s matchup this weekend with the New York Jets.
While Iloka, Kearse and Harris have been important factors, Edwards said the overall performance of the Vikings’ secondary still begins with Smith.
“Harry is definitely multi-skilled…whether it’s back in coverage, whether it is up around the line of scrimmage, whether it’s blitzing, it adds to his ability to be able to use him in those different situations, especially when you’re talking about disguises and coverages and those types of deals,” he said. “It’s a blessing for us to have someone of his skillset and his paying attention on defense, he is a consummate pro. Whatever we ask him for week to week, he goes out and gets it executed.”