Antone Exum is learning the hard way that Mike Zimmer’s expectations are higher than most. After Saturday night’s preseason victory over the Buccaneers, Zimmer vowed to continue “pushing” and “grinding” his players because he believes the group has “a chance to be a good football team.”
His comments come days after the Vikings head coach cut practice short and criticized his players for their sloppy performance, which seemed to find its way onto the field Saturday night — the Vikings turned the ball over three times and committed seven penalties for 60 yards.
On the defensive side of the ball, Exum has shined through two preseason games. Against the Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game, he recovered a fumble and returned it into Pittsburgh territory. And against the Buccaneers on Saturday, he intercepted Jameis Winston en route to a 32-yard return.
However, two highlight plays aren’t enough to vault Exum into a starting role, and Zimmer wants to see cleaner play from his second-year safety moving forward:
“He’s active, he’s active. He obviously made a nice play on the interception. He got down in there one time on a run, he was in good position,he didn’t finish the tackle. Those are things he’s going to have to improve on. Safeties have to be able to tackle. But he’s a very good athlete and we just have to get him disciplined.”
Exum’s interception exemplified his abilities against the pass — as the single-high safety, he read Winston’s eyes and baited the 2015 No. 1 draft pick into an easy interception. His coverage skills were a strength when the Vikings took Exum in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft, and those “ball-hawk” traits were on display Saturday night. Against the run, however, Exum entered the league surrounded by questions. Rob Rang of CBS Sports wrote that Exum “will lower his shoulder and lunge, on occasion, rather than seeing his target and breaking down properly,” and those problems appear to be an issue in Exum’s second season with the Vikings.
When asked if his impactful plays will stand out to coaches and lead to first-team reps, Exum expressed cautious optimism. “I think so, those are game-changing type plays, but that’s not my call,” he said. “I just go out there and play hard, give it my all and change the game. The coaches will decide who’s on the field.”
Thus far, Mike Zimmer has given the nod to incumbent starter Robert Blanton opposite Harrison Smith. Though Blanton hasn’t flashed like Exum, he understand’s the Vikings’ coverage concepts and is one of the league’s best safeties against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Blanton finished 2014 with a +6.8 run defense grade, ranking him fourth among all qualifying safeties.
Both players have their strengths and weakness, though. Blanton recorded one interception and defended just three passes last season, and on Thursday, defensive backs coach Jerry Gray expressed a desire for more turnovers from his secondary. “To me, I think we need a guy that can make more plays in the passing game,” he said to 1500 ESPN’s Andrew Krammer. “That has to be a priority for you, and it can’t just be, ‘Well, I’m out here and I don’t make plays.'”
Plays or no plays, it’s up to head coach Mike Zimmer to make the final decision at strong safety. Exum’s recent play, in my opinion, has earned him more playing time with the first team, and I’ll be curious to see if he cracks the starting lineup against the Oakland Raiders this Saturday. The Vikings’ extended dress rehearsal is the perfect opportunity for Exum to begin meeting Zimmer’s lofty expectations.