Mike Zimmer’s confidence in his safety options next to Harrison Smith seems to be waning.
Throughout the offseason it was thought that the two positions open for grabs on the Minnesota Vikings defense were the safety spot opposite Smith and middle linebacker. During the preseason the middle linebacker position proved to be very fluid as Audie Cole, Gerald Hodges and Eric Kendricks all got in work there with the first-team defense. But the safety position seemed to be settled as Robert Blanton got nearly all the first-team reps through training camp and the preseason.
That thought process changed on Monday, however, when it was Andrew Sendejo that got the Week 1 start against the San Francisco 49ers. He didn’t hand onto that position throughout the night, though, as Blanton eventually came in to replace him during the game.
Sendejo received 53 defensive snaps (73 percent of the plays) and recorded three tackles, but also missed some he should have had. Blanton also made three tackles during the game, while making mistakes, on 20 defensive snaps (27 percent of the plays).
Head coach Mike Zimmer is still not sure which of these players he is going to start on Sunday when the Vikings take on the Detroit Lions.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s kind of a fluid situation right there. Somebody give me confidence in that position – somebody I feel like is going to make the safe play and not the spectacular play. I don’t really care about making the spectacular play. I want guys who can make the safe plays. We missed those tackles. We got cut on the run force, and I said, ‘Hey, let’s put (Blanton) in the safety.’“
The one thing apparent is that the starting job does not appear to be going to second-year safety Antone Exum any time soon. There was a lot of hype surrounding him this offseason, but the head coach has not been happy with what he has seen.
“He’s a possibility if he could ever figure out what to do,” Zimmer said of Exum. “Once he figures out what to do, he can be part of that discussion. But if you don’t know what to do, and you can’t do it when things are moving fast, that’s kind of why we started with Sendejo. I felt like, ‘He’s a smart guy who knows what to do, kind of be in the right place all the time, and we can have confidence in him making the correct plays.’”
As far as middle linebacker is concerned, Zimmer did not appear happy with any of his options there, either. Hodges was named the starter and was on the field whenever the team was in the base package (63 snaps, 86 percent of the plays).
During that time, he recorded eight tackles, but you get a sense that he made a lot of mental mistakes throughout the game and filled the wrong gaps on multiple occasions.
“Well, we did a lot of uncharacteristic things there,” Zimmer said when asked about run defense. “We jumped inside of blocks. We ran underneath blocks. We didn’t fit in the right place a lot of times. We didn’t tackle. We didn’t get off blocks. We had one guy making the tackle a lot of times, which is ridiculous. The run force was poor, by whoever it was – the corner, the safety, sometimes the linebacker – where he was. We’ve got a lot of work to do there.”
At this point, Hodges could maintain the starting middle linebacker for Week 2 because the other players he is competing with didn’t stand out either. Cole was not in consideration because he was kicked out of the first-team defense during the preseason. That leaves Kendricks, whom Zimmer was not impressed by either.
“He didn’t play that good either,” Zimmer said. “It was equal opportunity (Monday) night.”
Kendricks played in 10 defensive snaps in San Francisco, recording one tackle. The reason that number is so much lower than Hodges’ is because the 49ers ran a lot of heavy-set formations with multiple running backs or tight ends. If they ran more of a spread offense, Kendricks likely would have seen the field a lot more because he is one of the nickel linebackers.
No middle linebackers or safeties, opposite Harrison Smith, stood out in a positive way to Zimmer in the team’s first regular season game, meaning those positions are likely going to remain up for grabs until someone proves they can perform positively as a starter.