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Eric Kendricks Steering High Motor into Sunday Night

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Twelve games, 76 total tackles, 4.0 sacks.

Rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks joined the Vikings after being selected No. 45 overall in the 2015 NFL Draft, and he hit the ground running. Aside from missing two games in November due to injury, Kendricks has made a significant impact in his debut season.

Heading into Week 16 against the New York Giants (6-8), the Vikings (9-5) are gearing up for the only Sunday Night Football contest during their two-year stint at TCF Bank Stadium and the first of Kendricks' career.

"Monday night, Thursday night, now I get to play Sunday night – get everything covered, you know? I don't have any extra nerves for this game, though. I'm just going to keep it simple and play like every game," Kendricks said. "My focus personally is doing my part to fit into the scheme of the defense and just stopping the run – that will lead us to our pass defense. If we stop the run coming out, play together, we'll be fine."

He may be just 23 years old, but Kendricks has already shown he's ready for the big leagues.

"He's been good," said Head Coach Mike Zimmer. "Really, for a young rookie to come in and play the middle linebacker and play all three downs and do the things he's doing, he's done very well."

On Wednesday, Zimmer commented on Kendricks' performance in pass coverage and the run game, areas where Kendricks has done well. One aspect in which Zimmer said Kendricks can improve, however, is keeping his focus on his assignment rather than on his teammates'.

"His problem in pass coverage is he gets impulsive at times," Zimmer said. "He will have the guy covered and then he'll start trying to do someone else's job – farming somebody else's crops."

For Zimmer, though, it's the type of problem he is more than willing to deal with.

"I'd much rather have a player be like that than when you have to kick him in the rear end," Zimmer said. "He's a guy you have to say, 'Whoa,' not, 'Go.' "

As quick as Kendricks is on his feet, he is just as quick mentally. Kendricks displays a high football I.Q. and absorbs all he can to improve. Earlier this season, Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards emphasized Kendricks' ability to transfer what he learns in the classroom to the field; that quality has been evident both in practice and on game days. According to Zimmer, Kendricks has good vision and sees things well on the field, which also helps his teammates execute faster.

"Sometimes it's a little bit of a disadvantage to him, because he sees things so fast that he wants to get there fast, and then he will get out of where he's supposed to be," Zimmer said of Kendricks. "Those things still all come with experience, and I have no doubt that in the future he will continue to get better with those things."

View images of the key contributors on the New York Giants.

Kendricks likes to learn, and it's a constant theme when asking teammates or coaches about him.

Linebacker Anthony Barr played alongside Kendricks at UCLA before reuniting as teammates in Minnesota, and he said Kendricks' work ethic in college transferred immediately to the NFL.

"He was a very good student [at UCLA]. That translates well to football – being a good student in the meeting room and applying that to the field," said Barr. "He's gotten a lot more comfortable as the season's gone on. Obviously, if you're a rookie, you're going to be a little flustered at first, but the last couple weeks he's really taking a liking to what we're doing with him, what we're asking him to do, and he's done a great job for us."

Veteran linebacker Chad Greenway echoed Barr's sentiments. Known as a leader in the locker room, Greenway has had the opportunity to mentor and instruct Kendricks. Greenway explained that the linebacker position takes a leadership role on the field, so even the young guys automatically take on that responsibility.

"He's done a really good job of pushing his ego aside and wanting to learn new things, and he's continued to take strides week in and week out," Greenway said of Kendricks. "[…] He's a great kid, he wants to be good, and he's a great teammate. He fits into the group, and we're all about trying to be as good of a linebacker group as we can be, making as many plays as we can. He's done a good job of stepping up and making good plays."

Kendricks recorded six tackles in each of the Vikings' past two games, and he is ready to face Sunday night and repeat some of those plays Greenway referred to. And, if you ask him, a sack on Giants quarterback Eli Manning wouldn't hurt, either.

Adjustment to absence: The Vikings began the week preparing for Odell Beckham, Jr., but have altered their plan since the NFL appeals process upheld a one-game suspension of the Giants leading receiver.

Zimmer said Beckham has been "kind of the go-to-guy in a lot of situations."

"It always alters an approach where we took some things out of a game plan," Zimmer said. "We always try to affect the other team's best players, and he's a good player, so we took some things out."

Safety Harrison Smith said there's a little mystery at how the Giants will attempt to compensate for the player who has accounted for 26.1 percent of the team's catches, 35.8 percent of its receiving yards and 40.6 percent of touchdowns.

"Being a competitive defense, we always want to play people's best," Smith said. "That's not to take anything away from anyone else on their team. We've got to prepare as well as we can and try and figure out what they're going to do."

Smith has been working his way back from hamstring and knee injuries.

"I felt good out at practice," he told media members Thursday. "Things are going well right now."

The Vikings held the Cardinals to 23 points and the Bears to 17 in the past two weeks, and Minnesota held Chicago to one play of 20 or more yards last week.

"Everybody did their job, competed, made plays," Smith said. "That's kind of how we win, get off the field on third downs, get the ball to our offense, and they handled the rest."

Injury reports: For the Vikings, Adrian Peterson (ankle/shoulder) and Rhett Ellison (ankle) did not participate. Josh Robinson (concussion), Smith (knee/hamstring), Anthony Barr (knee), Linval Joseph (foot) and Everson Griffen (shoulder) were limited. Jerick McKinnon (hamstring) was added to the report Thursday as a limited participant. Charles Johnson (ankle) was a full participant a second straight day.

For the Giants: LB Devon Kennard (foot), DT Markus Kuhn (knee), S Cooper Taylor (concussion), LB James Morris (quad) and T Ereck Flowers (illness) did not participate. WR/RS Dwayne Harris (shoulder) was limited. RB Orleans Darkwa (illness) and DE George Selvie (concussion) were full participants.

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