One position the Vikings defense has been looking to add over the last couple of seasons is what you could call a “Money backer” or in Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s case, the “big nickel” position. That big-nickel position is there to help take away mismatches an offense can look to exploit, as a third-linebacker and extra defensive back on the field. It allows the defense to stay with a more athletic third-linebacker to cover tight ends, running backs, while not being a liability against the run. We’ve seen defenses use this similar strategy, with players like, Deone Bucannon of the Arizona Cardinals and Mark Barron of the Los Angeles Rams.
After Captain Munnerlyn left in free agency in 2016, and Terence Newman retired this past offseason, there’s been a void felt at the nickel position. Rookie cornerback, Mike Hughes played well early in the season, but a tore his ACL in Week 6. Mackensie Alexander has finally bought in to being a full-time nickel corner, but early struggles and an ankle injury kept him out most of the preseason and Week 1. Mike Zimmer needed to look for another solution. Insert safety, Jayron Kearse, who has seen his snap count go up after the Vikings defense was exploited by the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday Night Football back on Week 4.
Let’s dive in to how Kearse has been able to help this defense at a position of need at the halfway point of the season.
Below are the Pro Football Focus grades from each game this season on Kearse. PFF has given Kearse a 62.1 grade through eight weeks. As you’ll see, his best and most consistent grade has been Tackles. He has not graded as well in coverage, but, he hasn’t given up big plays, or any touchdowns. With his size and length, Kearse has matched up well against opposing teams’ tight ends and bigger slot receivers.
He only played 10 snaps against the Rams in Week 4, which is the sort of offense Kearse matches up well against. The Rams stay in three-receiver sets for almost every play, or employed two-tight end sets to force defenses into staying in base defenses, creating mismatches for their playmakers. As we saw on touchdowns against Anthony Barr being matched up 1-on-1 against Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp and Todd Gurley. We’ve since seen Kearse’s snaps increase significantly. Even with Mike Hughes out for the season with an ACL injury, Kearse playing more snaps at nickel, is important for this defense moving forward.
Let’s see some clips of Kearse in his new role.
An example in the clip below of how versatile Kearse can be, such as blitzes from the slot at the top of the screen. He doesn’t initially get home, but his rush, along with interior pressure forced Darnold to escape. As Darnold attempts to escape, Kearse takes him down for his first career sack (later adjusted as a half-sack).
Against the Arizona Cardinals,Kearse reads, reacts and closes in space against a dangerous playmaker David Johnson. Kearse is responsible for the flats on this play, and once the receivers in front of him clear, he can key on the running back who leaks out. He reacts, closes and makes a nice tackle for loss in space.
Gifs: Vs the Rams PBU
In this final clip, Kearse matched up with the Rams dangerous receiver, Cooper Kupp. Kupp takes advantage of a matchup against Anthony Barr earlier in the game. But this sort of matchup is exactly why Kearse an such an important player on this defense now.
You’ll see he plays trail technique, using his length and the back of the end zone as an extra defender. Making for a perfect throw from Goff, if he wants to complete this pass. Kearse does a great job getting just enough of a tip on the ball to force the pass break up on third down, holding the Rams to a field goal attempt (Which they end up missing).
I’ll be the first to say I had my doubts with Kearse as a contributor on defense this season, and the team sticking with five safeties after the preseason. Out of all the defenders on this team, Kearse and defensive end, Stephen Weatherly have been the biggest surprises thus far. All Kearse has been saying is, “Don’t promise me nothing but a chance.” He’s been given his chance, and has earned every snap.