Considering how the Minnesota Vikings’ run defense played, Captain Munnerlyn’s approach to working in the slot could be a good thing.
Munnerlyn came to the Vikings last year as a free agent hoping to become a full-time starter. He was last year. He isn’t anymore.
Now his sole role, at least as long as Terence Newman is in coach Mike Zimmer’s good graces, is playing nickel cornerback. When that first became part of his duties three years ago, he went right to film of the master of the position: Antoine Winfield.
“That’s who I used to model my game after when I first got asked to play nickel back when I was in Carolina. They gave me a tape of Antoine Winfield and they said, ‘Watch this guy and then watch how he plays the game and how he takes on blocks and how he makes tackles,’” Munnerlyn said. “I kind of studied him a lot in Carolina. I got asked a couple times when I used to get interviewed and stuff, ‘You play like Antoine Winfield did.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I play like him because I watched his games so much, but I don’t hit as hard as him.’ That guy is one of the hardest hitting corners I’ve ever seen. If I can get that mentality to get in there like he got in there, I’ll be trouble.”
The Vikings could use somebody to cause trouble for the opposing running game after their performance on Monday Night Football in the final game of the NFL’s kickoff weekend.
Carlos Hyde set 49ers franchise records with 168 yards against the Vikings in his first start. As a team, the 49ers ran for 230 yards and finished Week 1 with the top individual rusher in the NFL and as the top rushing team in the league.
The Vikings’ issues went deeper than the defensive line or the linebackers. All levels of the defense shared responsibility in allowing so many yards on the ground. Cornerbacks and safeties, along with defensive linemen and linebackers, lost contain on numerous occasions.
If Munnerlyn has the chops of Winfield as a run-supporting nickel back, the Vikings could use it. His film study of Winfield carried over into this last offseason.
“I told you I went back to the dungeon. I went back to trying to be the old me, tried to correct some of the things that I messed up on last year,” Munnerlyn said. “So I looked at all the tapes of myself and then old tapes of Antoine Winfield to see some things he did and stuff. I love that guy’s game. He plays with a lot of passion. He’s not scared of nothing and he’ll hit you. I definitely had to go back to the old me and that’s going out there and being myself.”
Munnerlyn played only 15 snaps on Monday night, but that was because the 49ers’ game plan on offense was to use more three tight ends and not three wide receivers. But when teams employ three wideouts, it’s Munnerlyn who is expected to be on the field replacing the middle linebacker. He didn’t want to give up a starting role, but nickel cornerbacks are often in the game as much as 50 percent of the time.
“Everybody always says, ‘This is his natural position.’ It might be, but I only played it for three years,” Munnerlyn said. “Guys always say, ‘Oh, you’ve been a slot corner since …’ I never played slot until three years ago. This is only my third year playing it, but I think I’m pretty good at it. If my role is to be the nickel corner, I’m going to be the best nickel corner in the NFL. That’s just how I see it.”
If that’s case, then the Winfield comparisons can begin.