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Hicks & Pace to Help Mind the Middle Against Mahomes & Kelce

Jordan Hicks was early in his NFL career when a 2015 injury to Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans prompted Philadelphia coaches to make Hicks their "green dot" in place of Ryans.

That meant the rookie was responsible for wearing the helmet with a communications device and relaying the defensive calls from the sideline.

Hicks alternated between seasons — "every year but last year" — in that role with the Eagles, Cardinals and Vikings. He again is wearing the primary communication device this year for Minnesota, with rookie Ivan Pace, Jr., also having a helmet equipped.

The ability for Hicks and Pace to work well with each other is paramount for Minnesota within Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores' scheme that has been quite multiple in its looks and tactics through four games. Flores has created specialized plans for each opponent.

Hicks has been able to teach all he's gained from nine NFL seasons. Pace has been able to watch and learn; he has proven to be a quick study.

"[Wearing the green dot is] a lot of responsibility. I think back on those times, and compared to what I know now, I knew absolutely nothing," Hicks said. "It was very rule based. It was very, 'trying to not mess up' in comparison to now, when it's understanding football and the best positions we can be in, so even though there might be a rule to do this one way and call it this way, you might see something that allows you to go ahead and call it the other way.

"There's certain things, it's anticipation, understanding the football game, understanding the calls that are coming in, what Flo' or whoever the defensive coordinator was at the time is thinking when they make those calls," Hicks said.

Now 31, Hicks can reflect on his younger days with regard to how much experience he's gained and is passing along accordingly. Pace, an undrafted rookie free agent who will turn 23 in December, appreciates Hicks' investment toward his development.

"I think he really took me under his wing," Pace said during a recent appearance on Vikings Country. "They really have big hopes for me, the coaches and him as a player. We're both starting, and let's see where it ends up at the end of the season."

Flores was asked during training camp about the possibility of rookies starting/logging significant playing time and said it "depends on the rookie."

"When you're a rookie and you come in this league, there's a lot that's thrown at you," Flores said. "You're in a new locker room, you're trying to establish yourself, learn a new playbook. There's a lot on their plates. It's not easy to come in – and I didn't even mention just the level of competition, the players in this league – they're up against the best. So there's a lot on them. It's not easy to just walk in and play, but every so often you get a guy who has the maturity, has the routine, has the mindset and temperament to deal with all those things that are happening and contribute.

"That's what I tell rookies. 'Hey, learn as much as you can, ask questions, and find a way to contribute,' " Flores added. "I think our group of young defensive players, I think they've taken to that."

Minnesota Head Coach Kevin O'Connell said Hicks and Pace "play really well off each other" and said the Vikings feel good about Troy Dye and Brian Asamoah II, as well.

"There's a lot of moving parts, checks, things that really go through that green dot with Jordan and then the communication of I.P., all the stunts, when he's pressuring, communicating with those guys up front and the coverage on the back end," O'Connell said. "[Pace is] gaining experience as he goes.

"You look at his grade sheet, and it shows up positive, positive, positive," O'Connell added. "Communication has always been there with Jordan."

Hicks moved around multiple times during his youth as his mother earned corporate promotions, but he did play high school football in Cincinnati a few years before Pace did. Pace's former high school coach is now at Hicks' alma mater, so they've enjoyed a few connections.

On Sunday, however, they'll try to help disrupt connections between another Ohioan, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

Mahomes and Kelce have combined for 513 receptions, 6,474 yards and 48 touchdowns in 81 regular-season games since 2018 when Mahomes became the starter.

"I think it's just the fact that they've been together so long. It's seeing things a certain way. They understand what each other is thinking," Hicks said. "Any time you have two guys on an offense, especially a quarterback and [pass catcher] that are seeing the same thing, they're going to know where to sit down in the zone, where he's expecting the ball, what kind of throws Mahomes is going to be making, so there's a camaraderie, a consistency, a repetition of doing it the same way over and over and over again. It becomes second nature."

Defenses can have the right play called or make an appropriate check, apply pressure and coverage correctly within a play and still have Mahomes find a way to win the snap. He can escape and deliver on-target passes despite being off-platform, utilizing a sixth sense he seems to share with Kelce built from Kansas City featuring the tight end so frequently.

"The challenge this week is the perfect example [of an offense featuring a tight end]. Every single snap, first, second and third down, you have to know where he is, and there's a great chance wherever he is that the intent of the play is probably going to involve him in a pretty significant capacity," O'Connell said. "Defensively, we've got to know where he is, and even when you have a plan and defend it well, that's what makes the combination with Patrick and him so dangerous, because you can defend a play for 99.9 percent of it, and Patrick's ability to extend and threaten every blade of grass on the field, from every arm angle possible, in and out of the pocket and then the 'me-to-you' factor those two guys have where it's very clear sometimes what route 87 (Kelce) is supposed to be running and what happens from there is so, so difficult to defend because you can do it exactly how you coach it, have a great defensive call from Flo' and they're still going to make some plays against us.

"That last little bit there (0.1 percent) is what makes these guys so special," O'Connell added.

Flores chalked up teams making plays to beat good calls and executions is part of football "both ways, really, in all three phases."

Is it somewhat validating to see that a team had the right call and execution, even if an opponent overcomes both aspects?

"It doesn't feel like that in the moment. I'll tell you that right now," Flores said. "But you have peace that, you try to put guys in the right position. That's the game. That's the beauty of the game in a lot of ways. You can do a lot of things right, and it still doesn't work out. You can do a lot of things wrong, and it does work out, so that's what you love about it. That's what I love about it. That's why I'm so passionate about the game. It's why we're all so passionate about the game. That's why there are so many fans in the stadium and why so many people watch.

"I just feel fortunate to be a part of it, and this week is, certainly up there as far as games I'm excited to be a part of," Flores said. "I'm very appreciative and fortunate."

Mahomes' improvisations have yielded so much success so often that they're intertwined to his game like the stitching on his jersey.

"He's just special, right? He's that type of quarterback that can make something out of nothing over and over," Hicks said. "He's got guys that are extremely consistent and constantly making plays all over the field. Him within itself is a challenge, and then you add those guys around him, it becomes extremely difficult."

Listed at 5-foot-10 and 231, Pace has had to innovate to maximize his effectiveness.

His quickness and smaller frame can make it hard for blockers to square him up.

"It's just, I know I'm not a normal-sized linebacker, so I've got to figure out ways to get around them and get under them," Pace said. "Sometimes, you've just got to run through their face, but I've just got to figure out my own ways."

Linebackers coach Mike Siravo noted on an episode of Xs and Os that Pace has strength and toughness and know-how that help offset his frame.

"He plays with great leverage, and he has football IQ. The game makes sense to him out there," Siravo said. "Whatever is happening out there, he can diagnose it and can make it happen, but really interesting the way he beats blockers and sets up blockers, gets skinny through gaps and just has a little knack. So he's a fun chess piece out there, and he's great to work with."

Siravo has appreciated the way Hicks has guided the room, providing an influence for Hicks.

"[Pace is] starting to realize, 'If I'm going to have lasting power and not just be a two- or three-week story about an undrafted free agent, I have to adjust from college to this and use those veterans' nicks in the room who have been around for a while — 'What does it take to stay around?' " Siravo added.

Pace said Flores' defense "really fits me because that's exactly what I was doing at Cincinnati."

"I was blitzing a lot and really wasn't in coverage that much, but him sending me on blitzes and trusting me to go get after the QB, that's just my job," Pace said.

Pace began his college career at Miami (Ohio) before transferring to Cincinnati for the 2022 season.

As part of learning how they can best work together, Hicks has paid attention to how the Bearcats deployed Pace last season and the potential for overlap in Flores' scheme. Then, it's time on task together.

"It's reps. It's teaching on the fly. It's coming in and watching film. It's a lot of communication and explaining to him," Hicks said. "It's not just telling him what to do. It's explaining to him why I see it a certain way and why it needs to be done a certain way, but then it's also understanding his point of view, his background and where he comes from and the type of football he played in Cincinnati to make it easy on him, as well."