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NOTEBOOK: Vikings Have Options in Secondary Despite Hughes’ Injury

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings lost a key piece of their secondary over the weekend when rookie cornerback Mike Hughes suffered a torn ACL against Arizona.

Hughes, the 30th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is one of five defensive players across the NFL with a forced fumble, an interception and a defensive touchdown this season.

Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer announced Hughes will go on Injured Reserve, a move that will leave Minnesota with 10 defensive backs on its roster.

“This has always been a deal where somebody gets hurt, and everybody else has to continue to step up and play,” Zimmer said. “We feel bad about Mike, because I think Mike is going to be a really good football player.

“But we got other guys here, and we expect them to come in and do a good job,” Zimmer added.

The Vikings certainly have options with how they can proceed going forward in the secondary, and they have already shown glimpses of that in recent weeks.

When healthy, Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes are the starting cornerbacks while Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo line up at safety. If the Vikings are in a nickel package, Mackensie Alexander has seen plenty of playing time as the slot cornerback.

But Minnesota also has a handful of players they can use in certain packages to throw various looks at an opposing offense.

The Vikings could choose to go with their “big nickel” package, which is where a safety such as George Iloka or Jayron Kearse plays as the fifth defensive back and guards a tight end or wide receiver in the slot.

“It gives you some flexibility. There are a lot of reasons,” Zimmer said of using either of the 6-foot-4 safeties in that role. “I don’t want to get too complicated, but it’s just better cover guys than typically when you get linebackers in there. There are other reasons, too, that I really don’t want to discuss.”

The Vikings could also stick with their traditional nickel package and put Alexander in the slot to go along with Rhodes, Waynes, Smith and Sendejo. Iloka started in place of Sendejo (groin injury) and played 43 snaps, and Anthony Harris played 15.

Alexander, a 2016 second-round pick, was credited with five tackles (according to coaches’ tally) in Sunday’s game to go along with a sack, two tackles for loss and two pass breakups.

Minnesota could also choose to get Harris on the field in certain situations. The safety played just 15 snaps on Sunday, for example, but made the most of his chance with his first career interception and a pass breakup in the end zone.

“We feel like everybody wants to do his part, make the play when the opportunity is there,” Harris said. “I think we did a good job of playing our keys, executing our assignment and finishing the plays when they came.”

When asked Monday if the Vikings could bring another defensive back onto the roster, Zimmer’s response was “we’ll see.”

But no matter what roster moves the Vikings make going forward, it’s clear that they already have players in the secondary who can fill different voids and give Zimmer plenty of options going forward.

“One thing with Zim’, no matter who is in there, he doesn’t change the expectation,” said Iloka, who played two seasons under Zimmer in Cincinnati. “I think that’s why he coaches the way he coaches, because he expects all 46 guys up on game day, and everyone on the team, really, that when you’re up and your number is called, the standard doesn’t drop.

“He’s going into this week and every week with the same mentality, and I think he instills that in the players,” Iloka added. “I think that’s why everybody, as you saw yesterday, whether it was 20 reps, 10 reps here, everyone is trying to make the most of their reps because they expect everyone to continue that level of play.”

Added Zimmer: “It’s good for Kearse to get in there. It’s good for Iloka to get in there, Anthony Harris. Those guys had different jobs to do this week.”

Vikings O-line revels in big day on the ground

It had been a while since the Vikings had such a big day on the ground.

Minnesota racked up 195 rushing yards against the Cardinals, the most by the team since Week 16 of the 2015 season against the Giants.

Running back Latavius Murray led the way with a career-high 155 yards and a score on 24 carries.

A pair of Vikings linemen liked what they saw from the ground attack Sunday.

“Latavius is a very powerful back. We love blocking for him, and he just kind of showed what he does,” said Vikings left guard Tom Compton. “He gives you a lot of options. If you’re a little shaky on anything, he’ll definitely help you out and run a guy over. Powerful Latavius going at it.”

Added Vikings right guard Mike Remmers: “I just do whatever I can to give him as much room as he possibly needs, and he figures it out. Yeah, he does seem pretty good going downhill, though.”

Zimmer also had plenty for Murray the day after Sunday’s win that moved Minnesota to 3-2-1.

“Number one, he’s a great person,” Zimmer said. “He’s a very diligent about his work, practices hard, but he’s got good feet and acceleration.

“He stayed with the reads really well yesterday, I thought. He runs with his pads forward,” Zimmer added. “When he gets a chance, very seldom is this guy going backwards when he gets hit. A lot of those things I really like.”

Compton, a Minnesota native who is in his first season with the Vikings, said the offensive line kept working toward mini milestones throughout the game.

“The more [rushing yards], the better,” Compton said. “I was looking up on the board, and we had over 100 at one point, 150 maybe, ‘Let’s get 200, let’s get to the next landmark.’ I think everyone did a really good job.”

A man of many talents

Kirk Cousins delivered yet another electrifying pregame speech Sunday, imploring the Vikings defense to get after Arizona’s offense and recalling a quote from legendary Olympic gold-medaling wrestler Dan Gable.

The Vikings quarterback then had an efficient game on the field, throwing for a score and running for another before joining in on the hottest dance move around.

Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly was asked Monday whether or not Cousins gave a better speech or is a better dancer.

“Speech-giver, hands down,” Weatherly was quick to reply.

Weatherly then sheepishly admitted he got caught up in all of the dancing fun.

“I don’t know what they were doing. I was more so happy that they were able to do said dance, but not the dance itself,” Weatherly said. “But it was catchy, so I caught myself doing it.”

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