“Next man up” is about as cliche a terminology as there is in football. It is more of a motivating tool than a real philosophy, a way to maintain team spirits when key players have to miss games. Yet, with the 2018 Vikings, the mantra of “next man up” has proven to be more than just a shallow axiom. It has worked. The Vikings’ defensive depth has been tested all year, yet the defense has improved week-to-week, now somewhat resembling last year’s top unit. And along the way, Minnesota has learned that they have some solid players that have lurked behind starters, waiting for their chance. No better examples exist than Stephen Weatherly and Anthony Harris.
Both have been with the Vikings for some time, albeit in minute roles. Harris joined the team after going undrafted in 2015. For the next three years, he would be a significant player on kick coverage teams. He would also see starts here and there when Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo missed time.
Weatherly had an ever-so-slightly more auspicious start as a seventh round pick in 2016. While he did not start a game until this season, he did find a niche in 2017 as a fourth defensive end, playing primarily run downs or for short spells in the middle of games.
Entering 2018 training camp, both expected to make the team, but continue in their smaller roles. Things changed a bit for Harris when George Iloka joined the team just before the season started. Harris’ spot on the roster became a little less certain, given the Vikings’ talent in the secondary and Iloka’s history with coach Mike Zimmer. Alas, he made it through to the 53-man roster.
Weatherly had the opposite circumstances. The Vikings shocked fans by cutting veteran mainstay Brian Robison, essentially leaving the third end spot open to Weatherly. Suddenly, his playing time and significance ticked up dramatically.
It then jumped tenfold when the Everson Griffen situation took place. As the All-Pro Griffen missed seven weeks to deal with his mental health, Weatherly was thrust into a starting role. In that time, the third-year end made his presence felt, consistently getting pressure while remaining a force in the run game. Danielle Hunter racked up sacks opposite Weatherly, thanks in no small part to the latter’s strong bull rush. While some may have thought him a liability, Weatherly proved himself more than up to the task. And his teammates reaped the rewards.
Griffen returned in week nine, but Weatherly has continued to take advantage of ample playing time. His pass rushing has improved greatly this year, but his most obvious strength is his instincts as a run defender. Time and time again, Weatherly makes plays, thanks to his long, powerful arms, discipline and nose for the football. His tackle totals are not enormous. But nearly every time Eric Kendricks makes a tackle in the backfield on a stretch run, it was because Weatherly separated from his opponent and pushed the back all the way to the sideline.
As for Harris, his emergence was a little more gradual. Initially, he was simply a special teams guy with occasional defensive snaps. Even when Sendejo went down with injury, it was Iloka who became starter. Over the next couple weeks, however, Harris’ playing time increased until he finally earned the starting spot over Iloka in week eight. He has now started in five games and is tied for the team lead in interceptions with three. Smith, who also has three, reached that total by starting in all 12 games.
Harris’ playmaking has gone beyond interceptions. His instincts in coverage have been excellent for someone with a relatively small number of defensive snaps prior to this season. Just this past week, he saved a touchdown on the goalline. On third and short, Harris hit Julian Edelman just as the ball got there, perfectly walking the line between interference and good coverage. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
Harris’ and Weatherly’s emergence as playmakers has done more than kept the Vikings afloat while starters nurse injuries. It has allowed Zimmer to have rotations with his defense. He can give different looks with different personnel without sacrificing overall quality of the player. With both nearing the end of their contracts (Harris this year, Weatherly next), it also means both will likely be seeing some decent money. But that is a different discussion for another time.
For now, the Vikings defense is looking as good as it has all season. After a rough start, they have pushed into the top-10 in total defense. While a lot factors into that turnaround, Harris and Weatherly have played significant roles in getting the defense back on track.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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