Mackensie Alexander — one of the smallest players on the Minnesota Vikings — looks up, literally and figuratively, to defensive tackle Linval Joseph, who is one of the biggest on the team.
That’s why he stole Joseph’s home-run-swing sack celebration after corralling opposing quarterbacks.
Alexander has gotten a chance to use that move four times this year, tied for a team record for defensive back sacks, as opponents have often left him unaccounted for on blitzes. But his coverage is the real testament to his growth in Year 3 of his career. Since Week 7, Alexander is tied for the fewest receptions allowed in slot coverage, according to Pro Football Focus.
The former second-round pick seems to have reached his turning point, just as the other defensive backs in whom Mike Zimmer has invested. It took patience for those that came before him, and Alexander’s transformation is no different. He came to Minnesota as a brash, high-profile prospect who expected to play outside corner. After a second season where Alexander played about a third of the snaps in the nickel and spent the other two-thirds on the bench — occasionally in Zimmer’s doghouse — Alexander had to alter his perspective.
“It’s just about what’s asked of you and what they need from you and what can you provide for them,” said Alexander. “Just growing in every aspect, like I said, just putting in the work, studying, working hard and then letting things work out for themselves.”
Alexander was arguably Minnesota’s top defensive performer in their recent 41-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. He played a season-high 81 percent of snaps on defense, broke up two passes, made three tackles and sacked Ryan Tannehill once. After giving up some of his slot reps to Jayron Kearse earlier in the season, Alexander has gained more responsibility and backed it up with results.
“I’m needed at nickel, and that’s my focus,” he said. “I love my role. I’m growing every day, and I work hard like all my teammates do.”
Getting a degree at Zimmer’s cornerback school seems to require at least two years of education, give or take. Xavier Rhodes started playing to his potential late in the 2014 season, his second year. Zimmer nearly choked up discussing Rhodes’ growth at his end-of-season press conference that season, and Rhodes has backed it up ever since.
So what exactly happens when Zimmer’s corners finally break through?
“You just get used to it,” Rhodes told Zone Coverage. “The chemistry, the guys around you help you out, help you understand what’s going on, and then you’re a better defense. He harps on knowing what you’re doing, staying on top of the routes. Our defense can be difficult at times, but as long as you get into it, once you understand the defense it becomes easy to you.”
When Zimmer first arrived, he spent a lot of time working with the Vikings’ defensive backs, having coached DBs from 1994-99 with the Dallas Cowboys. Rhodes was his first project. Then Trae Waynes came along in the first round a year later. Waynes played just 19 percent of snaps as a rookie, 60 percent in his second year and 92 percent in his third year. He’s improved analytically each season and reduced his propensity for penalties while absorbing many targets as teams avoid throwing toward Rhodes.
Most young corners come in the league accustomed to shutting down subpar receivers at the college level, where more physically is permitted in coverage. Zimmer believes the reason it takes a while for them to adjust in the NFL is the vast difference between the pro and college disciplines.
“The rules are so totally different in college than in the NFL,” he said. “In college they’re probably going against two real guys a year and here they are going against a guy every week. They can grab them down the field, they can hold them, they can pretty much do anything they want in college. It’s about finding the skill set, finding the guy who’s intelligent enough to learn more than what they’ve had to learn, understanding offenses, understanding blitz adjustments, combination routes. There’s just so much more to learn.”
As the years have gone on, Zimmer has stepped back a bit from his role as pseudo defensive backs consultant. It helps that he now has Terence Newman, in addition to defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, as a mouthpiece after the veteran transitioned to the coaching staff before the season.
“Zim and Jerry and Terence, obviously playing for so long under Zim, he knows how to speak the same language,” said safety Harrison Smith, “and he knows how to deliver the same message that Zim wants to deliver, so we can all be on the same page.”
Smith says that Zimmer still spends a lot of time with defensive backs in OTAs, though, to build a fundamental foundation. Zimmer felt like the Vikings got away from their good technique during some early-season struggles, one of the adjustments the defense made to get back on track.
“He’ll still say, ‘Harry, get your pads down,’ when I’m backpedaling, stuff like that,” Smith told Zone Coverage. “Just making sure that we’re not letting fundamentals go to the wayside when things start becoming gametime.”
With Alexander and Waynes continuing to improve, the next to come along may be rookies Holton Hill and Mike Hughes. Though Hughes tore his ACL in Week 6, he showed promising early signs, and Hill has stepped in admirably in a depth role when called upon.
There is scarcely a weak link at the moment in the Vikings secondary, a group that came along methodically but effectively thanks to the continuity and coaching on that side of the ball, including the defensive backs guru himself.
“I think,” said Smith, “at heart, [Zimmer] is always gonna be a DB coach.”