Despite a resounding victory that showcased many of the Minnesota Vikings’ strengths, they may have to overcome at least one key injury in Week 2.
Slot corner Mackensie Alexander went down late in the first half with an elbow injury and was seen in the locker room Sunday wearing a sling on his right arm. Reports indicated that Alexander suffered a dislocated elbow, but head coach Mike Zimmer had no updates Monday, saying Alexander was getting an MRI.
With Mike Hughes yet to fully participate in a Vikings practice and Holton Hill suspended until Week 9, Minnesota could ill afford a cornerback injury at this early stage of the season. Jayron Kearse’s presence, however, could be the stopgap the Vikings need while Alexander recovers and Hughes gets back to full strength.
Kearse was the Vikings’ highest-rated player after four preseason games. On Sunday, playing most of the second half, Kearse was second on the team with seven tackles as Minnesota’s secondary hardly missed a beat after Alexander’s departure.
“Mohamed Sanu is a big, physical receiver, so we kind of planned on [Kearse] playing some today anyway because of matchups that we thought we might have,” Zimmer said after the game, “but Jayron’s been doing a nice job, and hopefully we can continue to keep getting him more looks and more plays in there.”
While Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes have the inexperienced rookies Kris Boyd and Mark Fields backing them up on the boundaries, the Vikings may have been best equipped to handle an injury to their nickel package specialist considering Kearse began spelling Alexander in the slot in 2018.
Kearse played over 200 defensive snaps last season, mostly in the “big nickel” against bigger-bodied receivers, giving him a defined role while Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo and eventually Anthony Harris held down the safety spots. Kearse’s 45 snaps against Atlanta were the most he’s played in the regular season since his rookie season when he once played 52. But with greater snaps comes greater responsibility. Kearse may be required to do more in coverage going forward than he did in sub-package duty. Smaller, agile slot receivers could provide a greater challenge to cover.
“It’s easier said than done, me being 6-5 compared to a guy like Mackensie that’s 5-10, 5-11,” Kearse said Monday. “It’s just lower center of gravity. I’m a little taller, so it’s a lot more difficult for me, but that’s something I’ve been working on, that lateral movement, knowing that I was going to be in this role.”
Kearse had the highest tackling grade, per Pro Football Focus, on the Vikings defense in 2018. His coverage grade, however, was 14th on the team as he allowed 13 receptions on 16 targets, albeit for a minimal 6.8 yards per reception. The Vikings like his physicality, especially against the run, but his coverage technique is something a savvy quarterback like Aaron Rodgers could try to exploit in Week 2 at Green Bay.
“I think usually if he gets hands on guys he’s pretty good,” Zimmer said, “so that’s part of it, using his length in that position. That’s probably his strength and that’s what he needs to continue to do. … Not very often is he going to be by himself on a guy. He’s going to get help from either the inside or the outside or whatever it is, and I think understanding leverage is the best part about that, where his help is.”
The Packers receiver corps is on the bigger side with six of their seven wideouts at 6-foot-1 or taller; four of them taller than 6-foot-3. Geronimo Allison (6-3) took the majority of the team’s slot snaps in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears.
Whether Alexander is healthy or not, the Packers game shapes up as a good opportunity to keep Kearse involved.
“When you go against those smaller guys, then it becomes a lot more difficult,” Kearse said. “Over there in Green Bay they don’t really have those short guys like that. It shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for me.”