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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings quietest star Kendricks ready for his toughest challenge in Pittsburgh

By Matthew Coller

The Minnesota Vikings’ defense is so stacked that they sent five players to the Pro Bowl last year and there was a good case for two more players to make the trip to Hawaii.

One of those left off the Pro Bowl roster was linebacker Eric Kendricks, who has led the Vikings in tackles for the last two seasons and become an elite coverage linebacker.

In Week 1, he received the highest grade from Pro Football Focus in coverage and ranked second last season in pass deflections on throws toward running backs.

Kendricks goes less noticed than Vikings defenders who make splash plays like sacks or pick-sixes, but his ability to track running backs and tight ends allows defensive mastermind Mike Zimmer to funnel quarterbacks’ reads right into Kendricks.

As that guy from Star Wars would say: It’s a trap.

For example, in Week 1, Drew Brees made what appeared to be a good read by looking for tight end Colby Fleener on a five-yard out route, but Kendricks closed in an eyeblink and dove to deflect the ball away.

“There’s a couple things he could do at that point, I just kind of saw him slow down, I guess, I took a chance and made the play,” Kendricks said.

Every position requires great instincts for the game, but linebacker has been long known as one that requires a high level of natural-born feel for football. From Mike Singeltary to Ray Lewis, the best middle linebackers play music by ear rather than reading off the sheet.

Of course, that’s not to suggest he relies solely on instincts. Kendricks said he’s worked hard to focus on situations, down-and-distances, and the concepts behind Zimmer’s defense.

Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith said Kendricks has developed into an all-situation player.

“Whatever position [Kendricks] is put in, whether it’s blitzing, playing base defense, covering running backs, tight ends, he’s able to do whatever the coaches ask,” Smith said.

And the numbers back that up. Last season, he was a highly efficient pass rusher, even if he only racked up 2.5 sacks, Kendricks pressured the quarterback on one of every eight rushes – a solid rate for an inside linebacker.

Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kendricks will face the toughest test of his early career as the Steelers bring an offense led by the league’s best running back Le’Veon Bell.

Per 16 games, Bell averages 1499 yards rushing, 756 yards receiving and 86 catches over the last three seasons. And he runs behind a gifted offensive line.

“I’ve seen some patient running backs, but I’ve never seen anyone as patient as him,” Kendricks said. “It’s going to be a challenge. I’m excited to play against him.”

In the passing game, the Vikings often ask Kendricks to line up at the line of scrimmage, then cover running backs 1-on-1. It takes rare speed for the position to get outside that quickly – and he will need every bit of his quicks to stay with Bell in coverage.

“He’s a great outlet for their team,” Kendricks said. “Whether it’s a designed play for him or just a little checkdown, he can get yards after the catch. He can break tackles and get up field.”

We remember breakout games for stars like Xavier Rhodes and Danielle Hunter – the moment where the NFL at large said, “Hey, this guy is good.”

Kendricks isn’t the type to look for that recognition. He doesn’t snarl or have crazy eyes like Singeltary, he doesn’t go crazy before games or preach like Ray Lewis. He’s more apt to let his play speak and against the Steelers, he will have a chance to make a lot of noise.

The post Vikings quietest star Kendricks ready for his toughest challenge in Pittsburgh appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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