Eric Kendricks makes an interception against the Panthers

Without Eric Kendricks, Minnesota’s Defense Loses its Pizzazz

  • Eric Kendricks
  • minnesota
  • Minnesota Vikings
  • Minnesota Vikings Defense
  • Vikings
By K. Joudry December 23, 2020 0 Comment
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The Minnesota Vikings just aren’t the same without Eric Kendricks. Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, and Justin Jefferson have been getting most of the headlines, but Kendricks is arguably the team’s best player. He holds the defense together, largely because of his combination of elite intelligence and athleticism. Unfortunately, the Vikings haven’t had Kendricks over these past few weeks because of injury, a reality that has underscored his importance to Mike Zimmer’s beloved defense.

Eric Kendricks, The Minnesota Vikings’ All-Pro LB

It goes without saying that the NFL is a passing league. The onus on defense has thus shifted toward stud edge rushers and corners. It’s a logical development. Offenses prioritize the pass, so defenses want players who can shut down the opposition’s passing game. The shift toward edge rushers/corners has led to some discussion of the linebacker position being relatively unimportant. Even still, Kendricks repeatedly demonstrates that his value transcends what typically flows from the linebacker position.

Everything on defense is interconnected. If the defensive line is dominant, then life becomes significantly easier for the linebackers and secondary. When Aaron Donald gets immediate pressure, Jalen Ramsey has an easier time covering his receiver. When Aaron Donald absorbs a double team, a linebacker has an easier time flowing to the ball carrier. The inverse is also true. When one area of the defense springs a leak, the other areas of the defense suffer. If Jalen Ramsey lets his man get open immediately, then Aaron Donald is unlikely to have the time to get pressure on the QB.

Of course, playing defense in the NFL goes far beyond my simple description, but hopefully, these brief words illuminate an important reality: successful defense largely stems from individual players and/or position groups putting the rest of the defense in advantageous situations.

In the past, Kendricks has had the benefit of playing within an elite defense, one where his teammates regularly put him in a position to thrive. The elite play from the secondary behind him and the defensive line in front of him has been crucial to his success. He hasn’t had this luxury in 2020.  Kendricks has nevertheless found a way to continue his excellent play. Indeed, Kendricks has been among the NFL’s elite defenders even though he doesn’t have Anthony Barr, Danielle Hunter, and Michael Pierce to help attract the offense’s attention (which is to say nothing of the various corner injuries).

Kendricks’ Preparation and Work Ethic

Eric Kendricks makes football look effortless. Make no mistake, though, Kendricks puts in a ton of effort to prepare for games. One of the surest signs that an athlete has poured tremendous effort into the sport is when the sport appears effortless. Kendricks succeeds because he spends time taking care of his body, studying film, and perfecting his technique. Being instinctive is almost always the result of a player marrying elite athleticism and work ethic. Kendricks certainly adheres to this trend.

The on-field results have been impressive. Kendricks is PFF’s #2 linebacker. His 82.6 overall score is strengthened by his 90.7 pass defense score. Every defensive lineman on Minnesota’s roster is either average to well-below average in PFF’s grading system. In other words, Kendricks hasn’t had the benefit of playing with an Aaron Donald-type in front of him. Pro Football Reference credits him with 107 tackles, four of which were a TFL. He also has three interceptions and six pass deflections. Keep in mind that he has missed three games due to injury.

The basic stats don’t tell the whole story, though. Take a look at the above videos of Kendricks’ interceptions. When he picks off the Teddy Bridgewater pass, the Vikings and Panthers are in a one-score game. The Panthers are facing a critical third down in the red zone, but their hopes of scoring are undone by an incredible play from Kendricks. Similarly, the interception against Dallas occurred when the Cowboys were nearing the end zone in a one-point game.

Therein lies the key to appreciating Kendricks: he makes big plays in important moments. Getting an interception when Minnesota is up by three scores is nice, but it really doesn’t impact the outcome. Making that same play in a one-score game, on the other hand, goes a long way in tilting the advantage toward the guys in purple.

Eric Kendricks, DPOY Candidate

Up until recently, Kendricks should have been under consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Will Kendricks win? No. Any slim chance he had was squashed by his recent injury. Should he have been a legitimate candidate before his injury? Without question. His impact as a linebacker – especially given the talent around him (or, rather, lack thereof) – is hard to overstate.

The Vikings likely won’t go very far this season, especially given their recent loss to the Chicago Bears. The roster transition has been too great, and the injuries have been too many. Nevertheless, the Minnesota Vikings ought to feel confident that Eric Kendricks gives their defense a crucial building block as they look to improve in 2021.

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I cover the Minnesota Vikings for The Brawl Network. You can find more of my work at my site: vikingsgazette.com. Skol.

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