EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — The Vikings in 2017 ranked No. 1 in total defense and excelled at all three levels.
Minnesota’s secondary has built a reputation across the league as being a difficult unit to game-plan for and face – at home or on the road – and was once again anchored by a core group of defensive backs.
Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith each were named First-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press and received their second and third nods to the Pro Bowl, respectively.
Smith, during his sixth year in Purple, tied his career high with five interceptions, which tied with six other players for third-most in the NFL. The safety started all 16 games and seemed to make plays all over the field.
Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards called Smith one of the team’s most consistent players and said “you know what you’re getting every day” when he steps on the field.
“His preparation going into a football game is going to allow him to line up and decipher what they’re doing and also be able to communicate with other guys what to anticipate and what is going on,” Edwards said. “I think he is one of the best safeties around.”
Edwards’ opinion was backed by analytics site Pro Football Focus, which ranked Smith as the league’s third-best overall player in 2017.
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh told Twin Cities media members leading up to the Week 7 matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium that Smith is a playmaker and a “very cerebral player” who demands attention from the offense.
“You just have to know where he is at all times,” Harbaugh said. “If he gets his hands on the ball, he usually catches it. They’ve got him in different disguising coverages, and he blitzes, he moves the secondary around, gets them in the right place.”
Rhodes once again proved to be one of the league’s best corners, matching up against and shutting down top receivers during the regular season that included Michael Thomas (45 yards), Antonio Brown (62 yards), Julio Jones (24 yards) and A.J. Green (30 yards). Rhodes started all 16 games and recorded two interceptions against Green Bay and at Detroit.
Opposite Rhodes at the other starting corner position was Trae Waynes, who took a big step forward in his third pro season.
Waynes started all 16 games for the first time since being drafted in 2015 and set career highs in total tackles (72) and tackles for loss (4.0). The 25-year-old snagged interceptions en route to Vikings wins at U.S. Bank Stadium against the Buccaneers and the Packers.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer praised Waynes’ progress, saying that he “played really well” in the season’s second half, especially.
“There was a lot of times earlier in the year I was helping him a lot. I’m not doing that very much anymore,” Zimmer said. “So, he’s been out there on his own and I actually think that’s part of the reason why the defensive numbers have come down quite a bit – because of the way these corners cover on the back end.”
Waynes has been able to learn from more experienced teammates, including 39-year-old Trae Waynes, who played his 15th NFL season.
Newman played primarily in Minnesota’s nickel defense and made a significant impact despite a slightly lessened role on the field.
“He’ll go into the slot. He’s got a ton of experience. I mean, he’s obviously a guy that’s been in this scheme in different places for a long time and understands it really well. I think that experience is critical for them,” said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan about Newman. “He’s willing in the run game. I mean, he’ll go in and make some tackles. He’s still very good in the pass game. He probably recognizes patterns and route combinations about as good as anybody just from all the experience that he has.”
Newman has built a strong rapport within the Vikings locker room, including with Andrew Sendejo, whom he first met when the two crossed paths in Dallas in 2010.
Now in his seventh season with the Vikings, Sendejo returned as the starting safety paired with Smith and led the secondary in total tackles with 98 (65 solo) according to coaches’ tally. He also recorded two interceptions – against Tampa Bay and at Carolina – and had eight passes broken up.
Sendejo missed three games, two due to injury and served a one-game suspension, and Anthony Harris stepped up in his absence during those contests against Los Angeles and Cleveland and at Green Bay.
Harris demonstrated the depth of Minnesota’s secondary, filling in admirably for Sendejo. He made a big play against the Rams when he forced and recovered a fumble by Jared Goff, and he added another fumble recovery at Twickenham Stadium against the Browns. Harris also continued to be a special teams standout for the Vikings.
Mackensie Alexander improved in his second pro season, tallying 19 tackles (13 solo), 2.0 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries. The cornerback also snagged his first-career interception, a pick at Washington that helped the Vikings notch their fifth consecutive win.
Tramaine Brock, Jayron Kearse and Marcus Sherels primarily contributed on special teams. Sherels’ 372 punt return yards ranked third overall in the NFL.
5 — Smith tied his career-best with five interceptions in 2017, including a pair of picks at Green Bay (Dec. 23) that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career.
Against the Rams on Nov. 19, Harris forced a fumble by receiver Cooper Kupp at the Minnesota 1-yard line after a 10-yard pass from Jared Goff on a third-and-4 play. Harris recovered the ball to halt the Rams drive and prohibit a go-ahead score.
The takeaway by Harris – who had started in place of Sendejo, came at a crucial time during a game tied at 7 – and the Vikings were able to maintain control on offense to close out the second quarter. Minnesota started the second half on offense, and the Vikings gradually pulled away to eventually defeat the Rams 24-7.
Andrew Sendejo, S
98 tackles (65 solo), 1.0 tackle for loss, two interceptions and eight passes defensed; started all 13 games played
Harrison Smith, S
93 tackles (61 solo), 10 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hurries, five interceptions and 14 passes defensed; started all 16 games
Trae Waynes, CB
72 tackles (62 solo), 4.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one quarterback hurry, two interceptions and 14 passes defensed; started all 16 games
Xavier Rhodes, CB* *
63 tackles (53 solo), 1.0 tackle for loss, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed; started all 16 games
Terence Newman, CB* *
48 tackles (30 solo), 2.0 tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, one interception and six passes defensed; started seven of 16 games played
Mackensie Alexander, CB
19 tackles (13 solo), 1.0 tackle for loss, two quarterback hurries, one interception and nine passes defensed; played in 14 games
Anthony Harris, S
16 tackles (12 solo), one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and one pass defensed, in addition to special teams contributions; started three of 16 games played
Tramaine Brock, CB
Five tackles (four solo) and one pass defensed, in addition to special teams contributions; played in 11 games
Jayron Kearse, S
Three tackles (two solo) and 1.0 tackle for loss, in addition to special teams contributions; played in 15 games
Marcus Sherels, CB* *
One tackle on defense in addition to special teams contributions; played in all 16 games
* tackles and quarterback hurries are by coaches’ tally
“Harry’s a good player. I’ve had some good safeties in my time, but this kid is instinctive, tough, physical. Great kid, smart, a leader. There’s so many adjectives that you can say about him.
“I thought the first interception he made … was big. And to make the one to ice the game, that’s pretty cool. Then you can go out there and take a knee.”
– Zimmer on Smith following his impressive outing at Green Bay