Holton Hill and other backups come up big as injuries mount for Vikings

Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports Images

Hill replaced Xavier Rhodes on Sunday at New York and promptly came up with his first interception on the first play.

EAGAN, Minn. – Vikings All-Pro cornerback Xavier Rhodes was helped off the field with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter on Sunday and was replaced by Holton Hill, a rookie for Minnesota who went undrafted this year out of Texas.

The New York Jets saw the change and immediately tried to attack Hill in a zone coverage. New York’s own rookie, quarterback Sam Darnold, overthrew the receiver and the ball went straight into Hill’s arms for his first career interception.

Another fill-in came up big for the Vikings, who are surging despite several key injuries to hit the team in recent weeks.

“Obviously the size and the speed and the toughness that he has,” Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said Monday of Hill. “When he gets out there, the game’s not too big for him. He just goes out and plays and does his job.”

It’s been a recurring theme for the Vikings, who started Sunday’s game without five starters. Riley Reiff (foot) and Dalvin Cook (hamstring) were inactive for the offense because of injuries. Three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Everson Griffen remains away from the team as he deals with a mental-health issue and Minnesota started the game without two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Linval Joseph (ankle, knee and shoulder injuries) and starting safety Andrew Sendejo (groin).

Rookie first-round cornerback Mike Hughes was lost for the season when he suffered a torn ACL in last week’s game.

The Vikings then proceeded to lose Rhodes, linebacker Anthony Barr to a hamstring injury and starting guard Tom Compton because of a knee injury.

“As (Rhodes was) walking off the field, all the guys were, ‘Alright, now Hollywood, it’s your time. Don’t let us down. Do what you do,’” Hill said. “They were saying it’s just like practice. Then they gave us the defensive call and the next thing I know, the ball is coming into my hands. Man, it was a blessing.”

Minnesota has been blessed with depth in several key spots as its won three games in a row and the defense has rediscovered its identity.

Zimmer didn’t offer any update on Monday about the team’s myriad injuries, but he touched on the reason backups are able to have success when called upon.

“Well, we’ve got good coaches, No. 1,” Zimmer said, mainly talking about Hill and the young defensive backs that have been forced into bigger roles. “I think that’s good, and I think they’re talented guys. Just because a guy isn’t drafted doesn’t mean he’s not a good football player.

“I mean, nowadays with only seven rounds, there’s a lot of players that are available after the draft and have opportunities to play. We’ve been very fortunate, but we’ve worked real hard at getting those kind of guys.”

Hill also became the top kickoff returner after Hughes’ injury.

Eric Wilson, who played 23 snaps on Sunday and helped fill-in for Barr, was an undrafted free agent Minnesota signed last year. Rashod Hill, who has started two games for Reiff at left tackle by sliding over from his starting spot on the right side, was an undrafted free agent in 2016 who was signed from Jacksonville’s practice squad.

Compton had started every game, but he became the starter only after Nick Easton was lost for the season to injury. Danny Isidora, a fifth-round draft pick last year, played 88 percent of the snaps on Sunday for Compton.

“I thought he did pretty good,” Zimmer said of Isidora. “He did some good things in the running game. He was decent in the pass game.”

Hill has been steady on the left side in filling in for Rieff while rookie Brian O’Neill, a second-round pick, continues his progression while starting the past two games.

“I thought he played well yesterday,” Zimmer said. “Physical; much better in pass protection, good in the running game. I thought he did well.”

Jaleel Johnson, a 2017 fourth-round draft pick, made his first career start in place of Joseph. The 316-pound defensive tackle had been given more time at nose tackle this season to increase his versatility.

Johnson was tied for second on the team with four total tackles and had a half-sack, the first of his career, all while helping the Vikings hold New York to 71 yards rushing on 24 carries.

“I thought we were strong at the point of attack,” Zimmer said. “I thought Jaleel Johnson played well. Sheldon (Richardson) played well inside. That helps. And then the linebackers were in the right place most of the time.”

Stephen Weatherly, starting his fifth game in place of Griffen, had a tackle for loss and continued his strong play. Rookie Jalyn Holmes, a fourth-round pick, played 18 snaps and had his first NFL sack.

“Pretty good,” Zimmer said of the play of the rookies, noting O’Neill himself. “These guys, it is important they come in here and play. I didn’t know Jalyn got a sack. That is pretty good, though. I am glad he did.”

Minnesota is also fortunate to have two veteran backups at running back and safety with Latavius Murray filling in for Cook and George Iloka, signed in the preseason when he was released by Cincinnati, starting for Sendejo.

The depth has allowed the Vikings to overcome the inevitable injuries and thrive, a good sign if Rhodes and the others are able to return this week with an important home game up next against the New Orleans Saints.

Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. See all of the Vikings’ coverage at footballmaven.io/Vikings

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