MINNEAPOLIS -- The message that stuck with Gerald Hodges from a disappointing rookie season, in which he was deactivated five times and failed to seize a wide-open linebacker job, was this: Talent alone won't cut it in the NFL.
Hodges came into his second season telling himself he needed to be more diligent about studying opponents, about using the resources available to him to find an edge on Sundays. The 23-year-old had already shown his improvement earlier this season, filling in for an injured Chad Greenway at weakside linebacker, but with Anthony Barr out on Sunday, Hodges would get his first start of the season on the other side of the field. He knew he needed to study.
"That's what Coach [Mike] Zimmer is really hard on: formations, formations, formations," Hodges said, repeating a mantra that sounded like it'd been drilled into his brain a few times this season. "You get the chance to see the formations so many times that when it comes up in game time, you see the formation and you already know what play is coming. You put yourself in position before the ball is even snapped. Knowing the formations and the lineups all week helps a lot."
So when the Jets lined up with two tight ends to the right, and Percy Harvin in the slot, on their first play from scrimmage on Sunday, Hodges knew they were trying to draw the attention of the Vikings' three linebackers away from Harvin, who would then give quarterback Geno Smith an open window in the middle of the field against safety Harrison Smith in man coverage. Hodges took one step toward the tight ends, but snapped back to his right, pulling down a laser from Smith almost like a power forward securing a rebound. He followed defensive end Everson Griffen to the end zone, scoring his first NFL touchdown on a 27-yard interception return in the Vikings' 30-24 overtime win.
"To make the play that close to [Smith] is amazing," Greenway said. "He was able to tip it, and concentrate and make the catch."
The Vikings still are trying to keep Hodges within the structure of their defensive system on a consistent basis -- "Sometimes he sees this and does that," Zimmer said after the game -- but the 23-year-old looks like he has a bright future in Zimmer's defense, possibly as Greenway's successor (though the 31-year-old has played well enough to merit consideration for another year with the team). Zimmer wasn't happy with how the Vikings played defensively for much of Sunday, but Hodges' interception return on the game's first play helped make it possible for Teddy Bridgewater to throw his 87-yard touchdown on the final play of the game, providing an impressive pair of bookends for the Vikings' sixth win of the year.
"My eyes just lit up," Hodges said. "When you see that end zone, you get that running back feeling like, 'Nothing can stop me.' When you’re like 10 to 15 yards away that is all you smell."