Minnesota Vikings’ fill-in safeties got by with ‘sandlot’ style

There was a little bit of “sandlot” to the way Terence Newman and Anthony Harris filled in at safety, but it worked.

Terence Newman was playing safety for the first time in his career. Anthony Harris was playing in the NFL for the first time in his life.

Yet, the Minnesota Vikings’ safety fill-ins during their Thursday night loss to the Arizona Cardinals did enough to give their team a chance. The Vikings lost 23-20, but it wasn’t because the defense surrendered more points or yards than the Cardinals’ top-ranked offense was used to generating.

“The reason you have a football team and you comprise a football team of two and three deep is because there’s injuries,” Newman said. “It’s a 100 percent injury rate. The coaches do a good job of finding guys that fit into what they like to do, guys that first off know what to do and then know how to do it. Anthony, I thought he played a hell of a game, even though we lost. We didn’t really miss a beat back there.”

While Newman is in his first season with the Vikings, he has the most experience of anyone on the team in head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense from their days together with the Dallas Cowboys and Cincinnati Bengals. That prompted cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to say that Newman should know what he’s doing, even if he had never played safety before.

But Harris? He was an undrafted rookie that spent the first 12 weeks of the season on the practice squad. It wasn’t just his first NFL start, it was the first time he had seen regular-season action.

Yet Newman and Harris were doing their best to survive.

“It’s like sandlot a little bit, but we didn’t draw up any defense,” Newman said with a laugh. “Funny story that some of the coordinators, they talk about how a lot of young guys screw up some stuff in practice and that’s how some defenses are formed. It was a good thing we didn’t screw up anything, although we do have a new blitz in this week. It may happen, I don’t know.”

Newman was a possibility at safety all last week as injuries ravaged the secondary. Top safety Harrison Smith was out with a hamstring injury. The other starting safety, Andrew Sendejo, was out with a knee injury. Previous fill-in Antone Exum was placed on season-ending injured reserve. That left Robert Blanton, who didn’t practice last week until Wednesday on a limited basis, as the only regular option. He was passed over for Newman and Harris in the starting lineup.

Harris’ performance may have been the most surprising. He tied for the team lead with eight tackles and had a pass defensed.

“He made some great checks. When it was his time to make plays, he made them. He wasn’t quiet at all,” Munnerlyn said. “That’s what I thought; I thought he was going to be a (typical) young guy, go out there and not say much and just play football. He wasn’t quiet. He was talking, flying around and making plays. It was exciting. I feel like a proud father over here about to cry because he played so well.”

Munnerlyn was joking about the tears, but Harris’ performance was no laughing matter. He and Newman were doing their best to get it right.

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“We were just talking to each other making sure, if one is supposed to be back, if the other was supposed to be back,” Newman said. “We were just looking at each other like, ‘OK, you go down.’ When we’d get the call, there were some blitzes I was like, ‘Hey, you take it’ and some blitzes I he was like, ‘Hey, you go ahead and take it.’ We just communicated and luckily we didn’t screw up too bad back there.”

Even with all the inexperience at safety, Munnerlyn said Zimmer “holds nothing back.”

“I think he still called his normal game. He trusts those guys,” Munnerlyn said. “Anthony, if you went to him a couple weeks ago, he could still tell you everything about this defense. He’s a young guy, but at the same time he pays attention in meetings. We’re in meetings and Coach (Jerry) Gray might say, ‘Hey, Anthony, what do you do right here?’ He’s not even out there, he’s on the practice squad and he breaks it down and tells us. I was like, wow. He pays attentions because he knows if anything goes wrong, he’s the next man up. He’s very prepared to go out there and play that game.”

Safety wasn’t the only position that was short-handed against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals. Linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph were both out with injuries, meaning the Vikings were without arguably their top three defensive players, including Smith.

Still, the Vikings were one of four teams to hold Arizona to 23 points or fewer through 13 games. The Cardinals have three games in which they have scored 42 or more points, including 48 against the Chicago Bears, the Vikings’ next opponent.

“For those two guys (Newman and Harris) to be the first time on the field together and at the safety position where you have to talk a lot, I think those guys did a tremendous job,” Munnerlyn said. “A tremendous job of making checks and making plays and tackling. Anthony Harris, man, I was amazed. I was amazed out there. I was like, ‘Whoa! This guy is flying around, making play. He’s making checks and doing well and he was just on our practice squad for the whole 12 weeks.’ He got his chance to go out there and play and he played pretty good.”


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