3. Trae Waynes took a huge step forward with a solid performance against one of the game’s best receivers.
Heading into the showdown versus the Packers, Waynes needed to have a big game. With the likes of Aaron Rodgers and a top notch receiver unit coming to town, they couldn’t afford inconsistency from the young corner and he didn’t disappoint.
While many expected Waynes to draw the matchup against Davante Adams, Xavier Rhodes shadowed the wideout instead. This shouldn’t come as surprise considering Adams was the leading receiver coming into the game. Yet, that left Jordy Nelson in Waynes’ hands for a majority of the game, which I’m sure was a scary scenario for many Vikings fans.
Despite the tough matchup, the 22-year old came through. Nelson finished the day with only six catches for 60 yards and Waynes turned in a pass breakup and tackle for a loss in the process. As he did at home against Green Bay last season, he sealed the game with an interception for the Vikings. Of course, Rodgers going down played a role, but that shouldn’t discount Waynes’ performance.
The Viking Age
The jury has been out on Waynes over the past couple of seasons, but this game was great for making his case as the long-term starter across from Rhodes. Even so, he’s going to have to build on the performance as consistency has been the main issue for the Michigan State product.
4. Harrison Smith and Everson Griffen should be leading candidates for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
It’s hard to say we learn anything new about the Vikings defense, but Smith and Griffen should be early front runners for the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Everyone knew they were Pro Bowl caliber players heading into the season, but both are playing at an even greater level this year.
To start, Smith had the best game on the defense and that’s impressive considering the defensive line was unbelievable against a beat up Packers offensive line. For the game, he had five tackles, 1.5 sacks, two pass breakups, and his third interception of the season. Basically, he was a menace for the Packers offense as he’s been for all offenses this season.
Although safeties are known more for their coverage skills, Smith has made just as much of an impact in stopping the run and rushing the passer. Coach Mike Zimmer has asked his safety to blitz at the line of scrimmage more often, resulting in multiple tackles at or behind the line. Of course, Smith is already a threat in the backend of the Vikings defense leading the team in interceptions and pass breakups (6).
For a more analytical take, here’s what Pro Football Focus had to say about Smith through the first five games of 2017:
"PFF Grade: 91.1 PFF Elite Stat: Smith ranks first among all safeties who’ve seen at least 10 targets thrown into their coverage with an average of 0.13 yards surrendered per coverage snap. Smith joins Quin as the only other safety to own an elite overall grade following the first five weeks of the 2017 season (only 15 players total own elite grades currently). Smith is one of just two safeties to have an elite run-defense grade at 90.5 and he ranks fourth among safeties with an 87.4 coverage grade. Opposing quarterbacks have just a 5.3 passer rating when throwing towards Smith’s coverage and he currently owns a five-to-one ratio in terms of positively graded plays to negatively graded plays in run defense."
As for Griffen, he produced his sixth straight game with a sack, a personal record for him. In all, he has seven sacks on the year, which ranks fourth best in the NFL. Additionally, he’s only one sack short of his 2016 season total of six and on pace to break his season-high 12 sacks in 2014. Granted, Mike Zimmer’s defense can be a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to sacks, but fact of the matter is, he’s constantly creating pressure up front.
Yet, let’s not forget about Griffen’s ability to play the run as well. He’s been a huge contributor in helping the Vikings rank third in run defense. Here’s what he told Star Tribune reporter Andrew Krammer on stopping the run following the game against the Packers:
What an analysis from Griffen, right? Good stuff from the Vikings captain.
Although there’s still plenty of season left, Smith and Griffen are on pace to have their best seasons as pros leading another top notch Minnesota defense. They are not only the best defensive players on the Vikings, but they may be the best players in the NFL at their respective positions. Don’t be surprised to see one or both lift a prestigious award at the end of year, ideally with a Super Bowl trophy in hand.