EAGAN, Minn. — Instead of helping on the back end of Minnesota’s defense, Jayron Kearse left a mark multiple times in the Seattle backfield on Sunday night.
The fourth-year safety played just 16 reps on defense but made them count, recording three tackles for loss in a seven-play stretch at the end of the second quarter and start of the third.
Kearse used his speed to storm through openings and size to take down running back Rashaad Penny on two run plays and a pass play:
Q2, 3:35 remaining
First-and-10 at the Seattle 22
The Vikings start with a two-high look with Kearse and Derron Smith at safety before Kearse creeps down to join linebackers Ben Gedeon and Eric Wilson.
The Seahawks pull tight end Will Dissly to block defensive tackle Hercules Mata’afa, and right tackle Germain Ifedi engages with defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
Kearse zips through the gap unblocked and tackles Penny for a 2-yard loss that put the Seattle possession off schedule and helped Minnesota get the ball back in time for a touchdown drive.
Q2, 0:28 remaining
Third-and-7 at the Seattle 28
The Vikings are in the nickel package with Bené Benwikere as the fifth defensive back.
Kearse is again at safety but comes up into the box when Minnesota adjusts to a pre-snap movement by Seattle. Kearse observes Penny turn to prepare to catch a short dump-off pass from Paxton Lynch.
Penny is at the 21, seven yards behind the line of scrimmage, and Kearse is at the 29 when Penny catches the pass, but Kearse shows impressive reaction and acceleration to zoom past a pair of offensive linemen who were preparing to block for Penny but too late.
Q3, 14:55 remaining
First-and-10 at the Seattle 18
The Vikings again have Benwikere as their fifth defensive back and have Kearse lined up with linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Wilson.
Seattle is in a bunch formation to the right.
Kearse gets a jump on the snap and starts heading into Seattle’s backfield as rookie receiver John Ursua heads to the left as part of a play fake. Ursua doesn’t see Kearse coming through the gap between Weatherly and Mata’afa, giving the safety a tackle for a loss of 6 on their opening play of the second half.
“It was good, just to get out there and play fast, read my keys, and good things happened,” Kearse said. “It was good to get out there and make some plays, get the juices flowing, get the crowd into it and my teammates jumping.”
The plays illustrate how comfortable Kearse has become in the Vikings defense, either as a safety or when used in Minnesota’s big nickel package.
“I’m just more comfortable as a player, so it doesn’t really matter where I’m at,” Kearse said. “I’m confident in my ability and the things that I can do well. As far as being in that role, I feel like I have shown the coaches enough for them to know I can play that role at a high level. I’m just coming out every day, trying to get better and just continuing to work so when I do get an opportunity in that position, I can make the best of it.”
If the plays seem kind of similar to what Vikings fans have grown accustomed to seeing out of Harrison Smith, there’s a good reason.
“I’ve learned a lot [from him], just about reading your keys, and when you see something, shoot [the gap],” Kearse said. “Don’t second-guess yourself, because if you second-guess yourself, you end up in a position where, ‘I should have done this. I should have done that.’ Watching Harrison and the things he’s done close to the line and behind the line of scrimmage has been big for me. Just talking to him about film study and what he sees has been a big help.”
Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said Kearse is doing a good job with the details.
“Anytime he’s been down near the box, he’s done a great job as far as his reads, as far as runs, play-actions and all those types of deals that we ask him to do,” Edwards said. “He’s done a good job when we go into that package, and even in our sub-package when he’s back at safety, he’s come down.”