Antone Exum’s first career start on Sunday could translate to another opportunity against the Seattle Seahawks.
Exum made his first start against the Atlanta Falcons because Harrison Smith was inactive with a knee injury. Smith said he didn’t have any update on his status Monday as he headed out for an appointment, and the Minnesota Vikings’ other starting safety, Andrew Sendejo, was knocked out of the Falcons game in the second quarter with a knee injury, too.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said Sendejo had a magnetic resonance imaging test on Monday but didn’t know the results yet, meaning Sendejo’s status for the Seahawks game is still in question.
Exum ended up playing all 64 defensive snaps on Sunday after his previous high of the season was six plays in Week 3. He might have to get used to a more active role on the NFL’s No. 2 scoring defense.
“I definitely have things to work on, but I knew that after the game with it being my first start and stuff,” Exum said on Monday. “Little nuance things to work on, so we’ll take that into the next game if I’m playing.”
He didn’t get a personal review on his play from head coach Mike Zimmer, which might be a good thing, but Zimmer was satisfied with Exum’s first start.
“For the most part, he was in the right place,” Zimmer said. “The biggest thing that we did yesterday was we executed the game plan of trying to take care of Julio Jones. I thought we did that well and he was obviously part of it because he was playing the back end. I think he did a good job.”
Jones entered the game as the leading receiver in the NFL, but the Vikings limited him to five catches for 56 yards, both the second-lowest output of the season for him.
Exum has spent the vast majority of his second season working at strong safety in practice behind Sendejo, but when the Vikings held Smith out of practice most of last week it prompted the coaching staff to call on Exum to fill in at free safety.
“They’re different, but all the safeties that we have, we should know those spots. Everybody is knowledgeable of both spots,” Exum said. “It’s one of those things if somebody goes down you have to be able to fill in at either spot. When you switch over from free safety to strong you do have to kind of flip your mindset – some of the things are opposite, where you might be down one play and now you’re in the post. You might hear a call and you automatically think, ‘OK, I’m down.’ But if you’re at free and you hear that same call, now it’s like, ‘Oh, now I’m not down. I’m in the post.’”
Exum ended the game with three tackles, one for a 4-yard loss in the backfield, and a fumble recovery.
“Me and the ball have a pretty nice relationship. I talk to her almost every night,” he joked. “We’re in good hands right now. We’re in a good place in our relationship.”
Zimmer said earlier this year that Exum might have a chance to start if he could figure out where he was supposed to be. That message resonated and got applied by Exum.
“He played very physical,” cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said. “He made some great tackles. To slow the guy down for Anthony Barr to make the tackle, it’s hard when the guy has the whole field to work with and you’re back there by yourself to try to make a tackle on him, he slowed the guy down and Barr came behind and made the great strip. He recovered it and it changed the game.”
Exum ended up playing more 10 times more snaps than he has in any game this season, but with Smith and Sendejo still on the mend, he may find himself in an important role for at least another week.
“I do hope I showed that I can step in and be a starting-caliber safety for this team,” he said. “But I understand we have two great safeties – all of our safeties are great, but the starters, we have two great safeties in Harrison Smith and Sendejo. They’ve done a great job all year so that will be a decision that the coaches have to make if they want to get me out on the field, and if those guys end up coming back we’ll have to go from there.”