EAGAN, Minn. — When Mackensie Alexander got benched in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers for allowing tight end Jimmy Graham to run free, there was a sense that the 2016 second-round pick might not become the nickel corner the Minnesota Vikings expected him to be. But over the second half of 2018, the former Clemson standout has taken hold of the position, which is highly valued by head coach Mike Zimmer.
“He’s done a lot better lately,” Zimmer said Thursday. “Probably the second half of the season. I think that’s why we’ve gotten better defensively is that position has gotten much more solidified. He’s done a good job in the running game, he’s had a couple nice pressures and he’s covered pretty well. Earlier in the year he was kind of like Xavier [Rhodes] getting penalties but he’s gotten away from that. That’s helped a lot.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Alexander allowed 21 catches on 24 targets. Since then the third-year defensive back has given up 13 receptions on 23 targets for 107 yards (4.6 yards per attempt).
The Vikings have been patient with Alexander, playing him just 68 total snaps in his rookie year and then 323 last season. He split snaps with Terence Newman last year. With three weeks to go, he’s already cleared 2017’s snap count by more than 100 plays.
Zimmer said playing the nickel role can often be a big adjustment for young players.
“Going from college, all they do is play outside corner and they don’t play very many coverages and they don’t learn man-within-zone schemes and different types of zones,” Zimmer said. “It’s really hard for those guys to go from outside to inside. Like with Trae [Waynes] we tried it his rookie year and things happen so much faster in there, there’s so many different things than just covering your guy. Generally it does take awhile for those guys to get to that spot.”
“It’s about finding the skill set, finding the guy who’s intelligent enough to learn more than what they’ve had to learn, understanding offenses, understanding blitz adjustments, combination routes, there’s just so much more to learn,” Zimmer continued.
The Vikings have needed Alexander to take the next step considering the number of injuries they have suffered this year. Rookie Mike Hughes, who was capable of playing nickel or outside corner, is out for the year with an ACL tear while both Trae Waynes and Xavier Rhodes have been dinged up.
Zimmer said he expects Waynes to play this week despite suffering a concussion against the Patriots and missing Monday night’s game in Seattle.