Defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa has been one of the Vikings’ main beneficiaries of the opportunity cleared by injuries, trades and opt outs.
Mata’afa, the third-year former Washington State standout, has earned a role in what has become a seven-man defensive line rotation after the Vikings traded defensive end Yannick Ngakoue over the bye week.
He has averaged 28 snaps in the past three games, many at defensive end, where he’s found a spark after a frustrating start to the season led to an October demotion to the practice squad. He vented his frustration on social media.
“I had to reevaluate myself and reevaluate how I wanted to be as a player,” Mata’afa said Wednesday. “I wasn’t doing enough to be on the team, so as soon as I signed with the practice squad, I went into that week thinking like, ‘This is it. Like, I’m going to go out and show every day in practice what I can do for this team.’ ”
Mata’afa’s effort has translated to games. His 10 quarterback pressures in the past three outings trails only rookie defensive end D.J. Wonnum (11) on the team, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I knew how hard it was to stay in this league, and I was frustrated with myself,” Mata’afa said. “I’ve always been an underdog my whole career: high school, college to now. My opportunity is finally coming, and I’m trying to make the best out of it.”
The NFL notified all teams Wednesday that, as of this weekend, every team will operate under intensive COVID-19 protocols throughout the rest of the season amid rising cases across the country. The Vikings were already there because of guard Dru Samia’s positive test Sunday morning. Intensive protocols mean only virtual meetings outside of ones in spacious meeting rooms approved by the NFL and NFLPA.
Players are still practicing, just with plastic face shields affixed to their helmets. Weight room and locker room time is limited. Players and trainers must wear “double PPE,” or masks and face shields, during medical treatment. The Vikings have had four players in the past month quarantined because of positive tests or close contact.
“I can’t remember the last time we weren’t in it,” coach Mike Zimmer said.
The Cowboys, traveling to Minnesota this weekend, set up a “bubble” during the bye week, housing 80 coaches and staff at a hotel to prevent community transmission to the team.
Right guard Ezra Cleveland was held out of Wednesday’s practice because of an ankle injury. The rookie played all 73 snaps during Monday night’s victory at Chicago. Veteran Brett Jones, recently re-signed to the active roster, took Cleveland’s place in practice.
Tight end Irv Smith Jr. returned to practice after being sidelined since a Nov. 8 groin injury. He was limited. Cornerback Cameron Dantzler remains in the concussion protocol. Dantzler, center Garrett Bradbury (shoulder) and Mata’afa (ankle) were also limited. Fullback C.J. Ham (noninjury) missed practice again.
No spectators allowed
No spectators will be allowed at Vikings home games after new restrictions issued Wednesday by Gov. Tim Walz prevent “family and friends of participants and staff” from attending sporting events. The Vikings had been hosting 250 family and friends, but with no paid attendance, in recent home games under old guidelines. The order runs through Dec. 18; the Vikings’ last home game is Dec. 20.
Rookie cornerback Jeff Gladney’s family from northeast Texas was planning to show up 15 strong for Sunday’s game against the Cowboys. Earlier Wednesday, before the new restrictions were announced, he said he was hoping to at least get his mom and aunt into the game.
“I was always a Cowboys fan growing up,” Gladney said Wednesday. “I told my dad, he can wear a double-sided jersey, but the Vikings have got to be on the front.”
Special teams help needed
The Vikings on Wednesday brought in more free-agent specialists for tryouts: punter Austin Barnard (Samford) and long snapper Kyle Nelson (New Mexico State).