It’s been an up-and-down four seasons for Jayron Kearse with the Minnesota Vikings, and there’s no guarantee of a future beyond 2019. But for the moment, he’s been one of the defense’s most important pieces, directly responsible for clinching two consecutive Vikings wins with plays in the end zone.
Kearse used his size to snare Dak Prescott’s Hail Mary at Dallas the previous week, a 40-yard heave that required Kearse to outreach the Cowboys receivers. Against Denver on Sunday, however, Kearse was called upon to be a true defensive back, leaving the comfort of the subpackages where he’s found a niche the past couple years.
“All I want to do is play football, just have a shot,” Kearse said after the game, “have an opportunity to go out there and play football because I believe I’m a good football player whether anyone sees it or not. That’s really all it was.”
Less a month ago, Kearse spent several hours in Hennepin County Jail after being arrested under suspicion of driving drunk while carrying a loaded weapon without a permit. Head coach Mike Zimmer called the decision “idiotic.” Meanwhile, Kearse, in the final year of his contract, composed tweets questioning his lack of playing time and his future with the team.
To improve their safety depth — perhaps in case of an impending Kearse suspension — the Vikings signed former starter Andrew Sendejo as a backup. Because of Sendejo’s acquisition, it initially looked like Kearse wouldn’t be needed on Sunday. Sendejo started in place of injured safety Anthony Harris while Kearse watched from the sideline.
But Zimmer said afterward that Sendejo was “rusty” in some of his coverages, so the Vikings turned to Kearse in a rotation with Sendejo. He wound up playing 41 snaps, his most since Week 1, and was thrown into action alongside Sendejo when Harrison Smith departed with a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter. He was on the field for the entirety of Denver’s 19-play drive that decided the game.
“When I have the opportunity, I have to seize the moment,” Kearse said.
Kearse had gotten used to his role as a slot corner, battling against tight ends and big receivers who required more physicality. He entered Sunday with just 19 snaps on the season as a true free safety and six as a wide cornerback. But he was thrown into both duties on Sunday, as well as his familiar roles lining up in the box for run support.
The Vikings brought Kearse on a run blitz to help stop Denver’s 1st and 10 from the Vikings’ 49-yard line. Kearse redirected Royce Freeman, the ball-carrier, for just a 1-yard gain. It would be the first of many times on the conclusive drive that Kearse made an impact.
The Broncos drove down to the 34-yard line, where Kearse really started getting involved. He tackled Phillip Lindsay after a gain of four yards, then played tight coverage on tight ends Tony Fumagalli and Noah Fant to force incompletions that set up 4th and 6, which the Broncos converted on a pass to Tim Patrick targeting Mike Hughes.
Zimmer liked Kearse’s size against the Broncos’ tight ends, who were targeted 14 times in the game.
“Well, it’s good he has size, and you know, I think that helped him,” Zimmer said Monday. “He had some length, so that helped him matching up with a tall guy.”
Kearse’s tackling again came into play on the next fourth down conversion by the Broncos. Brandon Allen executed a fake handoff to Lindsay that took Minnesota’s linebackers out of the play. Sendejo took a bad angle that let Allen into the open field, leaving Kearse as the only tackler remaining. The safety shed Fant’s block to level Allen at the 4-yard line, keeping him in bounds in the process and winding the clock down to 10 seconds.
“Actually on the fourth-and-one play, Sendejo missed the tackle on the quarterback, and then [Kearse] made the tackle,” said Zimmer. “We probably need to get him in there more.”
On the final two plays of the game, the Broncos continued throwing Kearse’s way, and both times he jostled Fant enough to deny the completion.
On the penultimate play of the game, Kearse guarded Fant, who lined up next to the tackle — a common area for Kearse to occupy. But on the final play from scimmage, the Broncos isolated Fant out wide against Kearse. The fourth-year defensive back had no help. Kearse backpedaled, absorbed a push from Fant, then tugged Fant’s jersey just enough to pull the tight end from the ball, and did so subtly enough to avoid a flag.
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) November 17, 2019
“It was all about just being physical with him,” Kearse said. “I’m a big body, he’s a big body. You’re not going to bully me, you’re not going to out-muscle me.”
Kearse’s final line on the last drive: two tackles, four targets, zero completions.
“If they don’t make that stop, I played the exact same game, and it’s a very different tenor right now in this room,” quarterback Kirk Cousins said afterward. “So you recognize what your teammates are doing for you and the difference they make.”
With two injured safeties and a handful of struggling corners, Kearse could be seeing a greater inclusion after the bye week — all thanks to one drive that showcased him at his best.