Over the course of the 2019 season, Eric Kendricks has elevated his play to another level. The former UCLA Bruin is currently PFF’s top-graded LB, and for good reason. He is dominating in all aspects of play. Here’s a look at the tape from the past three weeks to see how.
One of Kendricks’ issues in 2018, which was a down year by his standards, was that he wasn’t reacting quickly enough to what was happening in front of him. This is often called instincts, but in reality it’s a combination of preparation and real-time thinking that I would prefer to call mental processing. This season, Kendricks is seeing everything very clearly, and sometimes even seems to be a step ahead of the offense. Here are a number of positive plays (some of which will be broken down in more detail later):
Plays like Jet and Fly Sweeps are meant to exploit slow LBs to the edge. If the LB does not recognize the play, it can end up going for a big gain because the ball carrier will have a head start to the edge because he gets the ball on the run.
In the play below, Kendricks does a great job of recognizing the sweep, adjusting before the snap, and is able to stop the WR from gaining an edge, making the tackle for a loss.
Because smart LBs will adjust to Jet Sweeps, teams will also run misdirection off of them. If the LB over-corrects, it can leave a gaping hole up the middle. In the play below, the action does draw Kendricks’ attention, but he recognizes the handoff to the back in time.
After recognition, Kendricks shows off another of his great skills, his ability to work through traffic. He deftly avoids multiple linemen in order to get back to the ball carrier, and makes a great one-on-one tackle in the hole.
The play below is one of my favorites because Kendricks is actually dictating the RB’s read. This is an outstide zone run, and Kendricks stays on top of DT Shamar Stephen, who is on the outside shoulder on the guard. This forces the RB to cut the run back inside, and Kendricks makes a perfect tackle in the hole.
Finally, Kendricks has shown the ability to adjust to what he’s seen in a game and stop a play. Here are two screens the Eagles ran in short yardage situations. The first is successful, but the second time they attempted it, Kendricks recognized what he saw earlier and sniffed the play out, stopping the drive in its tracks.
In addition to top notch play against the run, Kendricks has been great in the most important aspect of the game, pass coverage. There, his mental processing skills shine as well, but his reps also showcase his fluidity and change of direction skills. Take a look:
The Vikings run a lot of match coverage principles. These require defenders to stick to defenders when they are in front of them, then pass them off to defenders in other areas based on rule sets. While passing off is a zone concept, these coverages can often look like man.
Kendricks executes one perfectly below, contacting the first receiver and taking a step with him before passing off and coming down to the checkdown option. When the QB extends the play, Kendricks does a great job sticking in the hip pocket of the receiver and ends up getting a pass deflection.
Play action is obviously difficult to defend against, and the temptation to key run on 4th and short is strong. However, in the play below, Kendricks is able to resist that temptation, and close on the pass on the rollout for the pass deflection.
Playing zone defense against hooks/curls requires good spatial awareness because the offensive players are taught to sit down in the spaces between underneath defenders. The player needs to recognize that an offensive player has entered their coverage area and take away the space they are trying to find. Kendricks has been great at that this season, and in the below he deflects a pass.
Kendricks put up elite explosion numbers at the Combine. This season, he is playing to those numbers. Take a look below:
Kendricks leads all off-ball LBs in pressures. Part of this is due to Mike Zimmer’s excellent blitz design, but if Kendricks wasn’t the athlete he is, he could not make some plays work. In the below, Kendricks gets a free run at Wentz because of the play design, but even still Wentz is nearly impossible to bring down, regularly escaping what seem like hopeless situations. Kendricks makes a great tackle.
Kendricks’ athleticism also helps him in the run game. In the below, he is able to burst through the line before the blocker can get off his double-team. This creates a tackle for loss. Stephen also deserves credit for doing enough to hold the line of scrimmage and keep Kendricks clean.
Kendricks is a bit undersized for an LB. In the role we’ve seen so far in this article, that’s not that big of a deal, but he does struggle a bit taking on larger blockers at times. However, recently he’s upped his game there as well. Look at below, where he is able to take a guard head on, disengage, and get in on the tackle. He’s not going to overpower blockers, but he can do enough to make the play.
FootballOutsiders’ has a stat called “Defeats”, which tracks the number of plays a player recorded a TFL/sack, 3rd/4th down stop, or pass deflection/interception/forced fumble. Luke Kuechly led the league with 38 such plays last year. By my count Kendricks has 20 in 7 games. Here are some of those impact plays:
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of the most improved assests of Kendricks’ game this year, his tackling. In the past, he has struggled with missing tackles. This year, he is on time and is making tackles with great form and devastating efficiency, preventing extra yardage. Look up at any play above to see what I mean.
While Kendricks had always been a solid contributor to the Vikings’ defense, he has taken his game to a new level in 2019, and may be playing the best of any defender the Vikings have right now. With 4 different players starting that have received All-Pro accolades at some point in their career, and 6 different Pro Bowlers on the defense, that’s high praise. He deserves it.