After last weeks dismal game vs the Chicago Bears, the Vikings are now officially one quarter of the way through the 2019 season. And while it’s very easy to sit and list all the things that are going wrong, there is someone on the defensive side of the ball who is quietly putting together a spectacular start to the year.
After what many considered a down year in 2018 for Eric Kendricks; I even called him out in a previous article, he has started off 2019 on fire. According to Pro Football Focus, Eric Kendricks is ranked 6th in overall Defense for Linebackers (minimum 70 snaps) with an 80.7 grade.
One of the factors towards this grade has been his coverage skills. Ranking 13th among LB’s (min 60 coverage snaps) while only allowing a passer rating of 88.5 when targeted. Kendricks has started this year off as a staple for Zimmer’s defense and the hope is that it continues. It’s one thing to look at numbers and PFF, but it’s another thing to see it on tape, so let’s take a look at some film to see just how good Kendricks has looked through the first four games of this season.
Here we are back in game one vs the Falcons. It’s a play where in the past I feel like Kendricks may have tried to make do more than what he needed to do. This year, however, I’ve seen a new side of Kendricks, one that knows exactly the type of player he is and sticks to the things he’s good at. In this play we have what I believe to be just a simple four man rush, Cover 2 Zone. It’s 3rd and 10 for the Falcons, so it’s an obvious passing down. Kendricks drops back into his Zone and who is coming his way? None other than Julio Jones. Obviously that’s the matchup the Falcons want, 6’3 Julio Jones vs 6’0 Eric Kendricks. Here is where I feel like Kendricks has matured, though. He knows he’s not going to out jump Julio for the ball, so what does he do? He just forces a hit on Julio to make this catch even harder for a guy who is already struggling to catch this ball. A solid play against an elite receiver.
Next we have game two vs the Packers in what is a pretty pivotal point in the game. Its 2nd and 10 for the Packers with just a little under 5 minutes to go in the game. Vikings need a stop here if they want any chance at a comeback. Here we see Zimmer sending the house at Rodgers and company, leaving Kendricks to cover Jones on a wheel route down the sideline. Now, Kendricks isn’t the fastest guy but this is a play where, again, Kendricks doesn’t try to do too much. He’s in a good spot and doesn’t panic. Instead, he reads Jones, who starts to go for the ball and just sticks his hand up to try and deflect the ball. The result is an incompletion. This is just another example of how Kendricks has been playing, not trying to do too much, just making the smart play.
Coverage hasn’t been the only thing that Kendricks has been doing well though he has been nearly unstoppable against the run, posting a 90.4 PFF grade in Run Defense which is a league best among all LBs in the NFL. While ranking 2nd overall among Linebackers in Run Stop percentage (min. 27 snaps vs the run) with 16.3% of his run defensive snaps resulting in a stop. That’s a total of 16 stops on running plays, which currently is the most in the league!
Here we are in game three vs the Raiders. You’ll see Kendricks has his eyes locked into the backfield waiting on a potential run. As the play develops Kendricks is tracking it the whole way, but there is one moment that stuck out to me. There is a moment in the play where the RB almost tries to fake out Kendricks like he’s going to bounce it outside. Instead Kendricks stays disciplined in his assignment. The opportunity to bounce it outside disappears and when the RB cuts it back inside Kendricks is there for the stop. This is the way Zimmer wants his defense to play, just do your job and trust your teammates to do theirs. Had Kendricks fell for the fake outside, chances are the RB cuts back inside and has a decent gain.
Same game here, and similar to the play above. Kendricks has his eyes locked into the backfield, and as the play starts to develop. You can see how patient he is as he stays locked on his assignment. This is a very smart play by Kendricks, because there is a split second where he loses sight of the RB behind all the offensive and defensive lineman. But instead of over pursing and anticipating the run to go outside when he loses vision of the ball carrier, he stays disciplined and trusts his teammates to be where they are supposed to be, and when the RB bounces back inside Kendricks is there waiting for him to stop him dead in his tracks.
There are many more examples of how well Kendricks has been playing this year, even in this most recent game vs the Bears where his run defense and tackling was great. After quite a down year in 2018, I feel like the game has slowed down for Kendricks and he’s trusting his instincts a lot more than he has in the past. You can see him being more patient yet he still remains aggressive. He’s been a key defender for this Vikings defense to start 2019 and is having a career year. I implore you to just keep an eye on him next week vs the Giants and witness how great he is playing. Keep it up Kendricks!! #Skol!