The Two Erics, Kendricks and Wilson, Keeping Injured Linebacking Corps Strong

Photo Credit: Harrison Barden (USA Today Sports)

Already trailing 31-7, the Oakland Raiders were looking for some semblance of life late in a game that they’d trailed since the beginning. On 3rd and 3 at Minnesota’s 18, they loaded eight players on the line of scrimmage to protect Derek Carr. Outside linebacker Eric Wilson, filling in for the injured Anthony Barr, saw that Hercules Mata’afa was misaligned. He stepped up and gave Mata’afa a pat on his right side, shifting the defensive tackle into the A-gap.

He might as well have said, ‘Get out of the way.’

Oakland didn’t account for Wilson, who shot through the B-gap to sack Carr, forcing the Raiders to attempt a 51-yard field goal that Daniel Carlson would miss.

“I didn’t know what they were going to do,” said Wilson after the game, “but it opened up pretty big.”

It was one of two sacks on the day for Wilson, who got his second straight start. Zimmer said last year that opponents didn’t account for Wilson the same way they did Barr, who missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury, but teams may have to start paying more attention to the third-year linebacker, whose ability to defend the run, cover and blitz has made him a more-than-adequate replacement.

“Straight baller,” said Eric Kendricks. “Everybody on this team knows what he’s capable of.”

Over the last two weeks, Wilson has shown his versatility, replacing base linebacker Ben Gedeon (groin) in Week 2 while also assisting in slot coverage with Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes out. With Gedeon back against Oakland, Wilson had to adopt the role of Barr, for whom he filled in for three and a half games in 2018. Though not a starter in Week 1, Wilson blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt on special teams to make his presence felt.

Wilson led the team with 11 tackles on Sunday. Though he was culpable in coverage on Oakland’s flea flicker touchdown in the second quarter — and perhaps again on tight end Darren Waller’s drop later in the first half — his contributions have largely outweighed any deficiencies, and his coverage skills have historically been strong as a converted safety.

Wilson’s improvement against the run is most noticeable. Per Pro Football Focus, he had the league’s second-best run defense grade after two weeks and likely sustained those marks on Sunday.

“Ever since my rookie year I’ve made an emphasis on being more physical, learning to use my hands on any given notice,” Wilson told Zone Coverage. “Just having that natural instinct if someone’s in my face, just punching them, using my hands instead of just trying to evade.”

Wilson wasn’t imitating every aspect of Barr’s persona, however. As the normal signal caller of the defense, Barr’s “green dot” that allows him to hear Zimmer’s defensive calls went to Kendricks. On Oakland’s first play from scrimmage, Kendricks found his run fit quickly and stonewalled talented rookie Josh Jacobs at the line of scrimmage, setting the tone for a strong defensive effort against the run. Minnesota allowed 88 yards on the ground just one week after allowing Green Bay to rush for 144. Kendricks had seven tackles.

Zimmer said there was a headset issue in the second quarter that made communication complicated, which could account for a couple breakdowns on Oakland’s touchdown drive. But Kendricks more than made up for it in the third quarter with a shared run stop of Jacobs on 4th and 1 to stop Oakland’s drive in Vikings territory.

There was a friendly debate in the pile between Kendricks and Danielle Hunter over who deserved the tackle for loss.

“They ran power early in the game, so I figured they had to come back to that power and really run it,” Kendricks said. “We were just aggressive. As soon as they ran it we knew we had it stopped. It was just a lot of fun, we were down there. We just knew what we did.”

“You know, he makes plays,” Zimmer said of Kendricks, “he’s good in coverage, makes plays in the running game. Defensive line does a nice job to help him to do those things.”

Both Erics have proved their worth the past two weeks in sustaining a unit that’s been missing a starter, using a blend of run-stuffing, pass coverage and smart pre-snap reads.

Kendricks seems to be playing some of his best football yet, while Wilson — a pending restricted free agent — has become the latest defensive player to position himself for a raise this coming offseason.

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