No Danielle Hunter, Michael Pierce, Anthony Barr, Patrick Peterson nor Harrison Smith.
But, YES, Eric Kendricks.
The Vikings defense was missing five starters for a myriad of reasons Sunday, but the hub of the wheel and a key to the heartbeat of the whole operation remained in place, and Kendricks delivered in his home state.
On Minnesota's second defensive snap, the Vikings picked a good time (based on the Chargers protection) to turn Kendricks loose to pursue Justin Herbert. The linebacker who had starred in the Los Angeles area at UCLA sacked the second-year QB for a loss of 15.
"It was actually a called pressure, and it was a good call," Kendricks said. "It worked out just how we practiced it, honestly. I got on his heels really quickly. I think it surprised him. He kind of stumbled a little bit, and I got him."
The sack was Kendricks' fourth of 2021, tying his personal best for sacks in a season with his 4.0 as a rookie in 2015. It gives him 13 for his career and more importantly for Sunday's outcome — a 27-20 Vikings victory — it helped Minnesota force a three-and-punt a week after the unit lingered on the field for more than 46 minutes in Baltimore.
"Those first 15 plays are crucial because coordinators like to set up those first 15 plays," Kendricks said. "They kind of know what you're running on defense and try to dial it in. So when you disrupt the first 15 plays like that and get a three-and-out, it's huge."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said the Chargers "got out of that protection the rest of the day" after Kendricks' sack.
Kendricks also halted another drive by Los Angeles when he dived in front of a pass intended for receiver Keenan Allen. Kendricks' ninth career interception and second of 2021 gave Minnesota the ball at the Los Angeles 31-yard line.
The Vikings scored a touchdown six plays later for a 13-3 lead with 3:26 remaining in the first half.
"The interception by Kendricks was big-time," Zimmer said. "I thought that was a heck of a deal."
It showed the tremendous completeness that exists in Kendricks' game. His athleticism that gets maximized by instincts and an ability to accelerate his way through a play.
"Actually, I was supposed to come off it a little earlier, and kind of turn around the other way," Kendricks said. "I saw him bending, and I decided that if I kind of speed-turn it, I'll have the opportunity to not only play the person who was coming underneath, but also kind of shelter that route he was running. So I kind of speed-turned it, and it worked out. I saw the ball pretty late and got out there."
The Sunday sundae was topped with whipped cream (a pass intended for an esteemed receiver that Kendricks has respected for so long) and a cherry (in his home state).
"Man, I've been covering Keenan Allen for years now. It goes back to [his time at] Cal. Shoot, I remember he broke me off at Cal, and it was like a 40-yard gain," Kendricks recalled. "Just a pleasure to battle against him. My brother (Mychal Kendricks) went to Cal, as well. [Allen is] a good competitor. He's a great player. Shout-out to him. I won that little battle right there.
"It's always special when I come to play in California," he added. "This is obviously my home. Shoot, I was raised — not raised in L.A., but I became a man out here, in college, at UCLA. It definitely has a special place in my heart, and every time I come back here, I've got to show out."
The Vikings will readily accept that kind of day from Kendricks wherever they play.
Minnesota won't have Hunter the rest of the season. Pierce just landed on Injured Reserve after already missing multiple games. Barr had grinded his way through the previous four games but has missed five total. Peterson is eligible to return from Injured Reserve as early as this week, but it is unknown how his hamstring is doing. Smith missed his second game Sunday while on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
The Vikings limited the Chargers to 82 rushing yards on 19 carries and held a squad that entered Week 10 ranked 10th in the NFL with 384.9 yards per game to just 253.
"We had a lot of players missing today," Zimmer said. "But these guys battled today. I was proud of the way the corners (Bashaud Breeland and Cameron Dantzler) played – they did a nice job I thought – and we did a good job, for the most part, in the running game, too."
Kendricks said the list of missing starters includes "some real ballers."
"But at the same time, we have guys who were anxious for an opportunity," Kendricks said. "You never know when it's going to come in this league, and you've got to take advantage of it. Obviously, we prepare, we prepare to win. These are really smart guys that we're bringing in, as well, and they're ready for it. Their communication's on-point out there. They're not rattled at all, and they like to fight."