Vikings' George Iloka faces different challenge: lack of playing time

EAGAN, Minn. -- The path George Iloka took to the Minnesota Vikings looked like this: Cut unexpectedly by the Cincinnati Bengals on Aug. 19, he moved swiftly to find his next team, talked to a handful of suitors, then decided to sign with the Vikings three days later.

Iloka probably could have earned himself more than the one-year veterans minimum deal he signed in part because he wanted to reunite with Mike Zimmer, the man who drafted him in Cincinnati in 2012. He also saw the prospect of making regular contributions on defense for a team with high playoff aspirations.

That last part hasn’t taken shape. Iloka has yet to register a single defensive snap through the first four games of the season, with his sole contributions coming on kickoff coverage/returns and punt returns. That the Vikings added a starting-caliber safety (76 consecutive starts from 2013 to '17) as a reserve piece and have yet to use him behind or in conjunction with Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo is puzzling.

“Doesn’t matter,” Iloka said. “I don’t try to give it too much thought, you know what I mean? My job is just to prepare every day. It’s [the coaches'] job to manage the team and whatnot. I’m just trying to be a good locker room guy.

“If there’s one thing I’ve always preached to other guys and younger guys when I was the starter in Cincy was stay ready so you never have to get ready. And you never know when your number is going to get called, you never know when a guy might go down, you never know when a coach is like, ‘Go in there.’ You don’t get the games back. You might get some practice reps back, but you never get the game reps back. You want to go in and you want to pick up where the last guy left off and actually improve the defense."

During the offseason, Zimmer talked about the opportunity Iloka presents in giving opponents looks they haven’t typically seen with the Vikings' scheme. His experience lining up at multiple spots (in 2017, he took 767 snaps as a deep safety or in the box, 43 off the edge, 99 as a linebacker and 75 at slot corner) was a concept Zimmer expressed interest in experimenting with in substitution packages and goal-line situations. Last season, Iloka registered a 64.8 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus data, and notched 80 tackles and an interception.

While Iloka has remained on the sideline, the Vikings (1-2-1) have experimented sparingly with one additional safety. The "big nickel" sub package with Jayron Kearse at slot corner has been used for 31 snaps, most of which came against San Francisco in Week 1.

Still, Zimmer said he’s not concerned about Iloka’s inactivity through four games.

“When George gets an opportunity, he’ll get an opportunity,” Zimmer said. “I have complete confidence in him. Typically there’s two safeties on the field, OK? So I’ve got some I like and he’s just going to have to wait his turn. He’ll get an opportunity at some point, I’m sure."

Iloka is confident he will be ready to play when called upon, but his absence deserves further exploration. As Zimmer said, the Vikings sticking with Smith and Sendejo for the majority of every game is a factor, and it’s not as though Minnesota is using a ton of three-safety sets elsewhere. It also could be that Iloka is still getting up to speed with the scheme.

Much of what the Bengals ran in Cincinnati was a carryover from Zimmer’s time as defensive coordinator. Iloka said he knew about 80 percent of the calls after his first day of Vikings practice but also discussed the vast nature of the playbook and the cram session that took place during the final two weeks of the preseason.

It's possible Iloka's time is coming given the defensive issues that hurt Minnesota in its first four games. When Zimmer vowed to “look at everything” with his defense following the Rams loss, it’s almost certain that included his personnel -- starters and reserve players -- and how he'll find the best 11 for every situation.