EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Mackensie Alexander played 323 defensive snaps during the regular season, which accounts for almost one-third of the plays the Vikings defense has been on the field.
That’s a far cry from the 68 defensive snaps Alexander played in 2016, which didn’t meet seven percent of the time the defense was on the field. The Vikings cornerback has seen the highest jump in playing time of all defensive players from a season ago.
Alexander, who is usually silent when the locker room is open to the media, spoke at length Wednesday in the locker room about his growth over the past 18 months and said he is a totally different player than he was as a rookie.
The former Clemson standout credited Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer, Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards and Vikings defensive backs coach Jerry Gray for helping him turn the page on his rookie season.
“Mentally, I’m so much further from where I would be [last year], just because of what we’re asked to do here, day-in and day-out, with Coach Zim’ and Coach George and Coach Gray,” Alexander said. “What they ask us to do, we change concepts so many times in the game with checks and different things. I’m so much further [along].
“I’ve allowed them to teach me, and I’ve allowed them to do their jobs. They know what they can do with me and my ability and put me in situations to win. I just sat down and listened and allowed them to do it,” Alexander added. “I’m producing on the defense and playing my part and having a role. That says a lot.”
Alexander had 19 total tackles (according to coaches’ tally), along with two tackles for loss and nine passes defended, which tied for fourth on the team. He also snagged his first career interception in Week 10 against Washington to help the Vikings in a second-quarter surge in an eventual 38-30 win.
But it hasn’t just been the coaches who have helped Alexander improve. The former second-round pick said he’s leaned heavily on fellow cornerback Terence Newman, a 15-season veteran.
Alexander waxed poetically on how much of an impact the 39-year-old Newman has had on him.
“Since I got here, T-New has been on me since day one. He’s been pushing me and has obviously seen the talent and all those things that got me here, but he wanted me to be a better person,” Alexander said. “He always felt like I had all the ability in the world, it was just my mental process and thought process I needed to grow from. I just listened to him and kept working, and look where we are today.”
“I need his influence. He’s been in the league for  seasons in the same defense. For a guy like that who knows this defense in and out, knows the concepts, knows everything that’s going on, that helps a whole lot,” Alexander added. “I know my skill set and what I can do. He knows what he can do, and we relate it back to each other and make it work. He’s always been on my side and pushing me, and he’s always been on my mental side because he’s been in the game for so long.
“I probably would not have been making the plays I’ve been making this whole year and playing the way I’ve been playing if it wasn’t for him. You need an older guy around you to show you what’s right and what’s wrong or how to practice better or understand that concept of what we’re trying to do week-in and week-out,” Alexander continued. “We’re asked to do a whole lot, but it’s something we embrace and something we love to do. It’s an everyday grind, and we love it.”
Perhaps the biggest area where Newman has helped Alexander has been film study as Alexander switched from being an outside cornerback in college to playing in the slot for the Vikings.
“They wanted me to play inside here. I had to learn how to watch film playing on the inside and understand the concepts of who was where and the little tips. When we watch film together, I kind of took it upon myself to learn how he watched film,” Alexander said. “You have to see it from a different set of eyes. He might see something that I don’t see, and sometimes I see something he doesn’t. We just point it out to each other.
“He’s just a great teacher, the way he goes out every day and works and the way he teaches,” Alexander added. “He’s pushed me a lot to get me to this point, and I appreciate him every day.”
Whether it’s been help from Newman or a revamped attitude, Alexander has turned into a key piece for the Vikings top-ranked defense in 2017.
“Everybody comes in, you have your own things, you have your goals, and you think, ‘This is what they brought me here for.’ You have to understand it’s a bigger league, a different ball game and it’s not about you,” Alexander said. “It’s more about the team and where they need you and where you can really help. You have to embrace the role and do your job. I’ve been doing that ever since.”
Finding their footing
Zimmer usually shows his team some type of game film in morning meetings, but he had a twist Wednesday at Winter Park.
The Vikings head coach showed his players clips of the field conditions in Philadelphia and noted players slipping on plays last week in Philadelphia.
“I did show the team the tape today of the surroundings, the situation, the field,” Zimmer said. “So we’ll try to do the best we can.”
Added Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen: “We actually had a little clip this morning that Coach showed, just of all the slippage that happened last week. It’s definitely something that’s on our minds and that we’re going to try to prepare for in the best way possible.”
Vikings players said they will be prepared for the situation when they take the field for pregame warmups.
“You know, we play in those field conditions a lot – at Green Bay, Chicago, there’s other places where we’ve played that isn’t the best footing, so you just have to make sure you’re using the right cleats and make sure that you go out there in pregame and figure out what’s going to be the best,” Thielen said. “You don’t really have concerns, you just kind of play it out and see what happens.”
Added Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen: “With the cleats situation, you just have to go out there and try the cleats. Might have to wear seven-studs, go out there, try to feel it out, wear seven-studs and see if it can help.”
Thielen said players could wear longer spikes on their cleats to combat the slick conditions. He also credited Minnesota’s equipment staff.
“They definitely are going to suggest certain stuff, they’re going to have it available,” Thielen said. “We have an amazing equipment staff that, for each week, they’re on top of it. They’re telling us, ‘Hey, this field’s this; this field’s that’ and ‘This is what you should use.’
“We’re very fortunate to have those guys because it takes a lot of the work from us and makes it a little bit easier on us, as far as on game day, just go out there and play football,” Thielen added.
Diggs wins weekly award for ‘Minneapolis Miracle’
Stefon Diggs will always remember “The Minneapolis Miracle.”
But the Vikings wide receiver was also tabbed for a weekly honor as he was named the Castrol EDGE Clutch Performer of the Week on Wednesday.
Diggs had six catches for 137 yards, including the game-winning, 61-yard score on the final play of the game.
Diggs said Wednesday that he had shifted his focus to Philadelphia.
“It’s been fun, but I want to get a win this week,” Diggs said. “It’s real important to me, and we got another opportunity.”
View practice images as the Vikings prepare to take on the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship on Sunday.
For the Vikings: Adam Thielen (low back) and Shamar Stephen (knee/ankle) did not participate. Andrew Sendejo (concussion) and Alexander (rib) were limited. Anthony Harris (knee) and Pat Elflein (shoulder) were full participants.
For the Eagles: Dannell Ellerbe (hamstring) did not participate. Sidney Jones (hamstring) was a full participant.* *