EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Eric Kendricks had an up-and-down rookie year for Minnesota, learning on the job as the starter at middle linebacker, and a hamstring injury during training camp kept him out of all four preseason games last month.
The growth process has only begun for Kendricks, playing a vital position in coach Mike Zimmer’s complex defense. Mistakes were made in the opener on Sunday at Tennessee, to be sure.
The sign of his potential, though, was as clear as ever on one game-changing play by an instinctual, athletic player.
With Everson Griffen pressuring Marcus Mariota, the Titans quarterback made a quick throw to wide receiver Harry Douglas that Kendricks leaped to intercept and return 77 yards for a touchdown to give the Vikings a 12-10 lead with 1:24 left in the third quarter. That was one of two scores by the defense in the 25-16 victory .
“Turnovers are big, man,” Griffen said. “If you can get two touchdowns like that a game by the defense, it’s going to be hard to get beat.”
Mariota faked an inside handoff on that play and shuffled back into the pocket, but Griffen wasn’t fooled. The rush prompted a hurried pass by Mariota, who didn’t see Kendricks moving to his right to dart in front of Douglas and undercut the route.
“The kid is amazing,” Griffen said, “and we’ve got a lot of players like that who can do that anytime.”
The key for Kendricks was reading Griffen’s rush, which told him pass and not run.
“I knew he was either going to get sacked or throw it,” Kendricks said.
The soft-spoken Kendricks, who was drafted in the second round last year out of UCLA, was a reluctant participant in the large-group conversation with reporters in the locker room on Monday about his highlight-reel play.
“I think we just know what we expect on defense,” Kendricks said. “We have a standard, and we just want to meet it.”
That was his first career interception, a feat he apparently told his mother he was aiming for in a text-message conversation prior to the game .
Kendricks posted a screen shot of the message thread on his Instagram account, showing his response to mom’s initial encouragement for him to sack Mariota for her. After he wrote he wanted the interception, she even upped the ante to the touchdown.
Kendricks was credited by Vikings coaches with seven tackles, including one for loss, in the game. He was one of five defensive players who never left the field, facing all 67 snaps by the Titans.
“I still have so much to improve on. Last game, I wasn’t perfect by any means, and I made a lot of mistakes,” Kendricks said. “I’m just trying to correct that this week in practice and work from there.”
Zimmer, naturally, agreed.
“There were some things that he was out of place. He was seeing ghosts a little bit a couple times, and really, all of our guys were at times, especially in the first half,” Zimmer said. “I think we settled down. We got under control. We figured it out.”
Early in training camp, before Kendricks was hurt, Zimmer praised Kendricks for his improvement.
“Last year, it was like he had too much coffee to drink,” the coach said. “Now he’s settled down. I think he feels really comfortable.”
NOTES: Kendricks became the eighth winner of the NFC Player of the Week award under Zimmer, who has started his third season. Five have been on defense and three have been on special teams. … The Vikings held four players, including three starters, out of practice Wednesday: DT Sharrif Floyd (knee), CB Xavier Rhodes (knee), TE MyCole Pruitt (knee) and LT Matt Kalil (hip). Rhodes and Pruitt missed the first game, with Trae Waynes starting in place of Rhodes. Floyd and Kalil were hampered throughout training camp with their injuries.