The sample size is small, but the results have been good — good enough to give Mike Zimmer and the Minnesota Vikings hope that this ‘Big Nickel’ thing is going to work out.
With Terence Newman retiring before the season, the Vikings decided to get creative with their slot corner position, mixing in safety Jayron Kearse to spell Mackensie Alexander. George Iloka also took seven snaps in last Sunday’s game against Philadelphia.
Kearse has played 56 snaps this season, exceeding last year’s total of 28 and approaching his rookie year total of 78, when he filled in at safety.
There are 47 players who’ve taken 30 or more coverage snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus, and Kearse ranks 17th in snaps per reception (10), allowing just three catches for 23 yards.
He is 12th in yards per snap at 0.77.
Kearse has played extensively in both of Minnesota’s wins, getting 22 snaps against San Francisco and 21 against Philadelphia, and his work against the Eagles earned an unsolicited compliment from head coach Mike Zimmer, whose said Kearse did “a nice job” in his opening address at Monday’s press conference.
The Vikings have been in their nickel defense nearly 80 percent of the time through five games, but head coach Mike Zimmer said he actually prefers using that personnel.
“I can get a lot more creative with a lot of things we can do when we’re in the nickel stuff than we do in the base stuff,” Zimmer said.
Sunday’s game wasn’t the first time Kearse had been given a big responsibility against the Eagles. In 2016 against Philly he got 52 snaps in relief of the injured Andrew Sendejo as the Vikings lost 21-10, but Kearse didn’t allow a catch.
Two years later, he was back playing at Lincoln Financial Field in a new position that maximizes his 6-foot-4 frame. The Vikings practiced with Kearse in the nickel before the season to get him ready for his subpackage role — a new wrinkle to Zimmer’s defense that nobody expected.
“It’s definitely something I like, me being closer to the ball,” Kearse said earlier this season, “so that’s something I hope I can get used to and continue to grow into that role and help this team further down the road.”
As a nickel, Kearse’s position coach is his predecessor, Newman, who specializes in instructing corners how to play the slot. Newman’s impact as a mentor has been felt by previous newcomers Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander. Now Kearse gets a chance to glean some wisdom.
“It’s been big,” Kearse said. “Terence is on me every day through practice, and then watching film with him on off days, so it’s definitely been a big help for me to have Terence on my side and just giving me the ins and outs of everything and walking me through everything from certain formations, certain things I have to do and I can’t do.”
The third-year player also has been practicing alongside Iloka, another defensive back with rare length for the position. The Vikings acquired Iloka in August after he was cut from Cincinnati to give them added depth. Interestingly, when the Vikings drafted Kearse in the seventh round out of Clemson in 2016, they had Iloka — a former player of Zimmer’s — in the back of their mind.
“He reminded them of me,” Iloka said, recalling a conversation he had with a Vikings coach during joint practices in 2016. “Length, size, stuff like that. In the league, you can do a lot with that.”
It’s still early in the season, but the Vikings have yet to regret their decision to make Kearse their big nickel.
“I’m very comfortable with covering anybody,” he said. “Whoever I have to line up on on the field, if they try to get a certain matchup that they feel comfortable with, I feel comfortable in my ability to go out there and take anybody out of the game, covering any receiver, any tight end.”