After a negative first-down run and a holding penalty put them in a bind, the Atlanta Falcons faced a 3rd and 19, trailing 14-0 in the first half of Sunday’s Week 1 tilt.
Matt Ryan decided to pick on Vikings rookie Kris Boyd’s side of the field, throwing to young receiver Russell Gage. The second-year wideout went up on the sideline and made an impressive leaping catch, only to be promptly drilled out of bounds by safety Harrison Smith before he could attempt to get his feet down. The highlight-reel catch was wiped away: Punt time.
Hard hits like Smith’s were sprinkled throughout the Vikings physical defensive performance as they sacked Ryan four times and held the Falcons scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter in their 28-12 victory.
Naturally, Minnesota’s defensive line doled out plenty of punishment between Danielle Hunter’s 10 pressures, Anthony Barr’s game-opening sack and Everson Griffen’s vintage performance that head coach Mike Zimmer described as “violent” and “aggressive.” But perhaps the most noticeable edge that defined the Vikings defense came from their secondary, where hard-hitting safeties and sure-tackling corners were packing punches that rivaled those of Hunter, Griffen and Barr.
“A lot of times corners get the stigmatism of not being able to tackle, not wanting to tackle,” said safety Anthony Harris, “so when you see Trae [Waynes] and Xavier [Rhodes] and other guys like that coming up off the edge and fitting guys up, getting their hats on the ball, I think it’s a big contribution to the team.”
Waynes earned the Vikings’ highest run-defense grade on Sunday, per Pro Football Focus, with two run stops and a forced fumble while tackling running back Devonta Freeman. Waynes and Rhodes both ranked in the top 15 in run-stop percentage amongst corners a season ago. Both have improved mightily in that regard since their early years in the league.
“I think it’s just guys have that mentality to get that hat on the ball and Coach Zim having an emphasis of having good tacklers on the defense,” said Harris. “We work through that stuff in practice, the run fits and coming off on different blocks and things like that.”
The Falcons two main running backs, Freeman and Ito Smith, were held to 3.6 yards per carry Sunday. Atlanta was forced to pass 46 times, and Ryan made several uncharacteristic mistakes as a result. Harris had two interceptions Sunday in his first Week 1 as the team’s permanent starting safety, replacing Andrew Sendejo who carried a reputation as a big hitter. Harris’s ball-hawking presence was just as formidable, however, in his 2019 debut as he also made four tackles and recovered a fumble. On Wednesday he was awarded NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
“Anthony continues to get better,” said Zimmer. “He’s a smart guy. He plays sudden because I think he’s got good vision.”
The chemistry that Harris and Smith have already developed gives opposing offenses something for which to account. Because of their ability to track each other’s movements — being “on a chain,” as Harris said — Smith can jump in and out of the defensive box as a threatening blitzer. His 12 career sacks show that he’s not necessarily bluffing.
“Some of that’s choreographed, so they know kind of where they’re going to end up at the end of the play or when the ball is snapped,” Zimmer said. “It just takes a little indecision for the quarterback. I think they have a good feeling for one another now, played half the year last year or whatever it was and then all the preseason. They have a good chemistry going.”
While Zimmer is fond of base linebacker Ben Gedeon — the third-year linebacker had the best preseason run defense grade on the team — there’s not a significant dropoff in the Vikings’ run-stopping abilities when they go to their nickel, especially with the bigger Jayron Kearse joining the fold while Mackensie Alexander is out for an unspecified time with an elbow injury.
As a special teams captain, Kearse has proven himself over his first three seasons as a physical, effort-based player. That shows in his stoutness against the run and his ability to tackle in open space.
That mentality is contagious in the Vikings’ defensive backs room.
“We take pride in that on the back end, especially when we get in the meeting room,” Kearse said. “We’re watching film and we see something like, maybe a guy takes most of the blow from a running back or a receiver. Every time we come up and make a hit we’re trying to make sure we get the best of them.
“Xay and Trae on the outside, I think they tackle better than any corners in the league. Especially Trae, Trae comes up, for a smaller guy, skinnier guy, he comes up and lays a hit on you.”
And that may be the difference between the Vikings’ secondary and most others. Even their smaller bodies like Waynes, Harris and Alexander are comfortable with contact. There aren’t many weak links.
“You’ve got to want to tackle,” said Harris. “You can be taught the right technique and stuff like that, but you’ve still got to have that want-to and drive to go do it.”