EAGAN, Minn. — Eric Wilson made his third career start Sunday, racking up a collection of tackles, including three for loss and a sack.
A pair of the Vikings linebacker’s starts have now come against the Lions, a team that has extra meaning to Wilson, who grew up roughly 20 miles from Ford Field.
Wilson said he was just wanting to make the most of his chance to start in filling in for Eric Kendricks, and that it was just a bonus that he had family and friends in the crowd.
“For me to get an opportunity like this in my home city with 30 family members watching, it was phenomenal to have that energy,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if you could tell but I was hyped up the whole game, ready to do whatever I had to do to help us win.”
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer said he liked what he saw from the second-season linebacker.
“He played pretty well. I thought he did a nice job in coverage,” Zimmer said. “There were a couple of pressures; obviously he had that one sack, but he had some tackles for loss.
“And he had a couple mistakes, too, but overall I thought he played well,” Zimmer added. “I thought he did a good job in the run game and in the passing game.”
Wilson joined the Vikings as an undrafted free agent out of the University of Cincinnati in the spring of 2017.
Zimmer on Monday compared Wilson’s recent growth to the development of Kendricks, a second-round draft pick in 2015.
Zimmer said both players had to learn not to play too fast at times and overrun plays.
“I think it’s really similar. [Vikings linebackers coach] Adam [Zimmer] talked, actually after the game [Sunday], he said a lot of things [are] like Eric Kendricks,” Mike Zimmer said. “He gets so excited and wants to get somewhere, sometimes gets there too fast and gets out of position.
“But the game’s slowing down for him, and understanding where he needs to be,” Zimmer said. “But yeah, there has been a similarity, yes.”
Wilson, who has a pair of sacks this season, has played a little more than 27 percent of Minnesota’s total defensive snaps in 2018.
He agreed with the notion that there is balance between playing fast and being out of position at times.
“I tried to make smart plays and play fast and use my speed,” Wilson said. “On the same page, I need to not play too fast and allow them to create seams inside. Choosing my shots and when I take them is definitely something I need to improve on.”
Wilson has now started three games this season, as he filled in for Anthony Barr earlier in the season.
The 24-year-old said he’s ready to take on whatever role needed as the Vikings look to secure a playoff berth Sunday against the Bears.
“The major thing really was to prepare. I watched a ridiculous amount of film and asked a lot of questions in our meeting room,” Wilson said Monday about his preparation for the start. “AB and EK gave me all the pointers they could. We always talk football all day along. Even later today I’m going to go hang out with them, so I’m sure we’ll all talk football then.
“It all works together and just communicating, honestly, between each other and making sure we’re all on the same page helps a lot,” Wilson added. “It helped me make the transition to ’backer and talking through it and making sure we’re on the same page.”
If the Vikings do need to rely on Wilson going forward, his teammates know he’ll step up like he did Sunday in his home state.
‘“That’s no surprise to us,” said Vikings safety Harrison Smith. “He was a dynamic player on special teams, too, so we’ve got a bunch of guys that can play.”
Added linebacker Ben Gedeon: “I think E-Wil obviously had a great game … flying around, I think he’s had a really good few weeks here. Late in the season, guys go down and miss a game or two, and you have to have guys step up. Eric Wilson did a great job of that.”
O’Neill working on finer details
Brian O’Neill has firmly established himself as the Vikings starting right tackle, as the rookie has now been in the lineup in 10 straight games.
O’Neill said now that the hurdle of securing a starting spot has been surpassed, his “big challenge is continuing to improve on little details from week to week and day to day in practice.”
The 2018 second-round pick then expanded on those details, saying he has worked with Vikings co-offensive line coach Clancy Barone to help refine every part of his game.
“I think it could be something [like] the difference in two inches where your hand’s placed on the backside of a zone play or how your second step hits the ground, and at what angle you’re going to come out of your stance. Little things like that,” O’Neill said. “Whereas, I know, ‘OK, I’ve got to block this guy.’ But what are the fine details of doing that when it comes to footwork, pad level, angles, hat placement, all those kinds of things that go into the finer points of playing offensive line.
“Coach Barone is really, really good at staying on me with all those little details, and it’s helped,” O’Neill added.
Zimmer said Monday that there are a multitude of areas — from technique to scheme to skill level — of why pro football is tougher and more complicated than the college game.
But Zimmer said he has liked how O’Neill has combined his athleticism with some toughness since he’s been in the starting lineup while improving those small aspects of his game.
“We knew at some point it was going to happen,” Zimmer said of O’Neill as a starter. “He’s just such a good athlete, and he can get to the second level in the run game. I think the big part of it was, how quick can he adapt in the passing game?
“He continued to get better and better every day. Sometimes he gets out of position, but he’s able to use his athletic ability to recover. For an offensive lineman, I think a lot of it is – in the passing game – being able to recover,” Zimmer added. “Because you’re going to get some athletic defensive ends, and they’re going to put you in a bad spot once in a while, but can you get out of that bad spot and can you still protect the quarterback? I think he’s done that, and it just kind of showed and showed and showed. I guess we just kind of felt like it was time.”
The Vikings have their biggest game of the season Sunday at home against Chicago, as a win gets Minnesota into the playoffs.
The work by players will start on Wednesday, however, as Zimmer chose to give them Monday off. Tuesday is normally a scheduled day off for players.
Zimmer said he wanted his players to have the chance to relax with their families before the intensity of the week picks up.
“It was more for Christmas than it was for Victory Monday,” Zimmer said. “These guys have been working hard, and I just thought, spend some time with their families and we’ll get back to work on Wednesday.”