Defensive lineman Hercules Mata‘afa has been one of the Minnesota Vikings’ main beneficiaries of the opportunity cleared by injuries, trades and opt outs.
Mata‘afa, the third-year former Washington State standout and Lahainaluna (Maui) alum, 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 averaged 28 snaps in the three games leading up to last Sunday’s 31-28 loss to the Cowboys, 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 last week. “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 during that three-game stretch trails only rookie defensive end D.J. Wonnum (11) on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. A relative no-name defensive line isn’t racking up sacks but has shown promise while embracing an underdog label.
“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.”
Whatever happened to reliable Nate Herbig?
The Eagles’ offensive line mystery deepens
One of the few good things to come out of the extraordinary run of injuries along the Eagles’ offensive line this season has been the play of Nate Herbig, an undrafted second-year player who started the first eight games, five at left guard and three at right guard. Herbig – a Saint Louis (Oahu) alum originaly from Kauai– played every snap, and showed a lot of raw power.
Herbig, 6-foot-4, 334, began the season as the replacement for Brandon Brooks (Achilles tear) on the right side, then went to the left when Isaac Seumalo suffered a knee injury, and offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland decided Herbig was more adaptable than Matt Pryor. Then Herbig went back to the right when Pryor missed a game because of COVID-19 quarantining. Stoutland praised Herbig’s willingness to move around as needed.
But Herbig did not start Nov. 15 against the Giants, and didn’t play any offensive snaps. The official word was that he had a finger injury, which NBC10 said affected his entire hand. Herbig did not appear on the injury report leading up to last Sunday’s game in Cleveland. He was inactive, on a day when the Eagles ended up using all nine active offensive linemen. Seumalo returned from his knee injury at left guard, and Pryor started at right guard. Sua Opeta was the top backup guard.
“There’s nothing more to it,” coach Doug Pederson said Monday. “Opeta has deserved the opportunity right now, and with Isaac coming back, it was just, we had all the offensive linemen available and we had to put a couple of guys down, inactive for the game. Herbie’s doing fine. … Each week he’s competing for one of those backup spots right now, or potentially a starter spot, if there’s an injury.”
The news that Herbig isn’t considered one of the Eagles’ top five offensive linemen right now surprised observers, who haven’t seen Pryor do anything great, and haven’t seen Opeta do much at all. Pro Football Focus gives Herbig a 64.0 overall grade for the season, 64.1 in pass-blocking and 63.7 in run-blocking. Pryor’s grades are 55.9, 58.9, and 53.3, though he did grade out well at Cleveland — 64.9, 67.2, 61.0. Opeta’s grades are 57.6, 52.7, and 57.9
The (Minnesota) Star Tribune’s Andrew Krammer and Philadelphia Inquirer’s Les Bowen contributed to this report.