There are several factors that go into why the Minnesota Vikings defense has transformed itself from the worst in the league when Mike Zimmer took over as head coach less than two years ago to one of the best.
There is a ramped-up aggressiveness to the defense and opponents have consistently come out of games with the Vikings worse for wear as a result. Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends have been battered and bruised by Vikings defenders.
Nowhere is that more true than at the safety position. From the day they drafted him, the Vikings knew they had a budding star in Harrison Smith, but the other safety spot was up in the air. Robert Blanton shows flashes but wasn’t the consistent kind of impact playmaker Zimmer wanted in his starting lineup.
He had a special teams demon looking for more playing time in Andrew Sendejo and, when the regular season started, Sendejo was inserted into the starting lineup and has been there ever since when healthy.
At times, he plays a little out of control – Xavier Rhodes can attest to that, as he got knocked out against San Diego when Sendejo inadvertently put ran into him with friendly fire on a deep pass. He’s learning to try to keep his game more in control and not as a non-stop whirling dervish, but he has a hard time keeping his game under strict control.
“That’s just the way I play,” Sendejo said. “But at the same time you do have to play smart. You can’t jump things all the time. It’s one of those things that you have to know what plays you can be aggressive on and which ones you shouldn’t be as aggressive.”
Smith has seen the best and worst of Sendejo, but has respect for his fellow safety because of the reckless abandon and disregard for his body that he plays with. He takes every play like he’s still on special teams trying to get a returner at full speed.
His style isn’t for everybody, but Smith loves it because, in many ways, it reminds him of his own playing style.
“We both do everything at high speed,” Smith said. “This defense is built for defensive backs, whether it’s safeties or cornerbacks. We have a lot of responsibilities in the defense, but we also have a lot of freedom. You have to be responsible and not get away from your assignment on each play, but we have a lot of different things we are able to do in this defense.”
Sendejo remains a work in progress as Zimmer and his staff try to mold him into a more technically sound player, but, at the same time, not taking away the unbridled aggression that he plays with.
At times, those two philosophies are in conflict and Sendejo will take a misstep that takes him out of plays from time to time. But when he looks back on his performance from one game to the next, he sees the improvement he’s making but remains extremely critical of the plays that he doesn’t make and is convinced he should.
“Every game you’re going to look back and see plays where you did do correctly and those you didn’t do correct,” Sendejo said. “Ultimately, it’s how the coaches think you did. I think everyone at this level is their own harshest critic. That’s the way we’ve made it to this level. We don’t get complacent with ourselves.”
For a player with the nickname “Harry the Hitman,” it’s hard to imagine that Smith could have a peer when it comes to putting his body on the line to make a tackle, sack a quarterback, pick off a pass or deliver the lights-out hit on a receiver that he has become known for. But he has learned he has a peer in Sendejo because they share a similar aggressiveness and, at times, Sendejo is even more aggressive than Smith is, which is saying something.
“He’s like a missile,” Smith said. “He does everything out there at full speed. He takes chances, which can be good and bad at times. But at the same time you have to love someone who plays with as much intensity as he does and makes the plays that he does. Receivers don’t like seeing him coming and that’s a good thing for us.”
Sendejo, and, to a lesser extent, Smith, didn’t seem like ideal fits in Leslie Frazier’s Cover-2 defense. It called for them to read and react, not necessarily take the initiative and play a multi-faceted role in the defense. That all changed when Zimmer came on the scene.
His coaching style is to attack opposing offenses like a pack of rabid dogs, relentlessly on the charge in hopes of overwhelming an opposing offense and forcing the issues from start to finish of the game. Sendejo believes he could contribute in any defense, but has a fondness for Zimmer’s style and what it allows him to do.
“I think as a defensive player you need to be able to fit in every defense,” Sendejo said. “It doesn’t matter what the call is, you have to play it and play it to the best of your ability. I do like this defense because it gives the safeties a lot to do and it really helps that we have as good a front seven as we do here. It makes our job a lot easier.”
The aggression the Vikings bring to the table on defense – from Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph up front, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr at the second level of the defense and Smith and Sendejo in the secondary – has been on display in recent weeks as the Vikings have propelled themselves to the brink of being one of the more dominant teams in the NFC.
The defense has more than done its part to help the Vikings to a 5-2 start and garnering a lot of national attention as a sleeper capable of making a playoff run. For that to happen, two of the most integral links to that defensive chain will be Smith and Sendejo – and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re hoping for big things here,” Smith said. “For that to happen, everyone has to do their part. That includes me and Sendejo. We have a lot of opportunities to make a difference in games. It’s a challenge we’re both up for and, if we do our jobs, we will continue to improve on defense because all of us want to be the best and we think we’re in the position to have a defense that can be something special if we all execute.”