One of the strong points of the Vikings’ 2014 season has been the play of its safeties. While there has been a lot of rotating at other positions, Harrison Smith and Robert Blanton have been fixtures in the defense.
That was, until Blanton went down with an injury that opened the door for Andrew Sendejo to return to the starting lineup. Sendejo has earned his spot on the roster thanks to strong special teams play. But when Smith was sidelined with a turf toe last year, Sendejo stepped in and played with that same special teams wild-man mentality that made him a special teams ace.
All Smith could do was watch Sendejo’s play from the sidelines last year. With Blanton out, the two of them are side by side in the Vikings defensive secondary and Smith likes what he sees – to the extent that he isn’t sure if he’s the most high-flying safety on the field.
“I think he’s even more aggressive than I am,” Smith said. “He’s a guy who goes in there and is throwing his body around. He’s got no regard for himself. He’s awesome to play with and watch. He’s a smart guy and he loves the physical aspect of the game.”
Sendejo graded out well in last week’s loss to Detroit. Although the scoreboard said the Lions won, 10 of their 16 points were the direct result of turnovers deep in the Vikings zone and the defense allowed just one touchdown – on a drive that started inside the Minnesota 10-yard line.
He wasn’t happy was the result, but Sendejo felt the defense held up its end of the bargain against a big-play Detroit offense.
“There are always some things that you can correct, but I think overall as a defense, we flew around and played physical,” Sendejo said. “We did a good job of eliminating big plays over the top on the back end – just correcting the mistakes, moving on and trying to get a win this week.”
Sendejo and Blanton have both showed well in their respective stints in the starting lineup, but defensive coordinator George Edwards has been pleased with what he has seen in the extraordinary skill set that Smith possesses – a versatility that is getting him mentioned in Pro Bowl discussion.
“I think it’s very good,” Edwards said of Smith’s level of play. “Harrison has done a good job, from Day One. Number one, picking up on what it is we are asking him to do out of the position. He does a lot communication-wise, he does a lot alignment-wise, he’s playing deep, he’s playing up near the line of scrimmage, sometimes he’s like a linebacker, sometimes he’s blitzing. I think his skillset enables us to be able to use him in all of those different avenues. He’s done a good job of retaining and carrying things to the game, as far as performing on Sunday. You feel good when you’ve got a guy that pays attention to the details of things like that. Really is helping the people around him with his presence, his communication and those kinds of things, he’s done a good job of that all year.”
With Blanton still hobbled with knee and ankle injuries, Sendejo is expected to get another shot at starting safety. Coming off last week’s game with the Lions, he said the Vikings are looking to start building off of that for next season.
Some teams might have the mindset of mailing it in after being officially eliminated from playoff contention, but the Vikings aren’t doing that. They’re looking at the final two games as a stepping stone to 2015, while keeping their focus on the team at hand – in this case, the Miami Dolphins.
“For the defense, we’re just trying to keep building,” Sendejo said. “After the performance we had last week, we’re trying to build off of that. No one in here looks ahead to next year or that it’s the end of the season, let’s shut it down. We don’t have guys like that in here. We’re going to keep playing hard the last two games.”
With two aggressive safeties, it could pose a problem. When two players are so similar, there can be the potential for getting out of position and being victimized by their own aggression. But, from what he has seen, Smith believes the two of them form a dynamic duo capable of patrolling the center portion of the field with vengeance and furious anger.
“I think we work pretty well together,” Smith said. “(Sendejo) has the same kind of approach to the game as I do – fly around to the ball and try to make big plays. We saw that from him last year. We’ve seen it on special teams and we’re seeing it now.”
Sendejo is looking to take full advantage of his role in the defense. While he stuck out in the Leslie Frazier-led Tampa 2 defense last year, like Smith, he has embraced the system put in place by Zimmer. The only difference is that he’s just now getting his chance to shine in the spotlight with a temporary starting role and show the coaching staff that he can be as big a contributor as the play-callers allow him to be.
“Any time you get a chance to get in there and play you’re going to try to do the best you can and fill whoever’s shoes that was in there,” Sendejo said. “I’m pretty aggressive. Everybody has their style of play. Nobody is going to hate an aggressive guy as long as you play within the scope of the defense.”
As a defensive unit, the Vikings have shown considerable growth during the second half of the season. In the last nine games, they have allowed more than 24 points just once – and that was a 29-26 win over Washington. To many, the Vikings’ 2014 season is over. They’ve been eliminated and some fans wouldn’t mind so much if they lose their last two games to enhance their draft position.
But that type of thinking isn’t part of the DNA of either Smith or Sendejo. They’re looking at these last two games as an opportunity to send a message to the rest of the NFL that the Vikings are going to be a team to be reckoned with and that the defense is capable of making a lot of noise next season.
“I think we’ve started to jell together and are doing a lot of good things,” Smith said. “There’s still a lot of room to improve and that’s what we’re going to try to do the last couple of weeks – just keep improving and start building toward next year.”
Smith, Sendejo an aggressive mix at safety
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