The Minnesota Vikings made every effort to improve their offense this offseason by beefing up the offensive line and adding weapons around Sam Bradford, but the success of the 2017 Vikings will most likely be determined on the defensive side.
Over the last two seasons, the Vikings have ranked sixth and fifth in points allowed. Unless Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees is traded to Minnesota before September, they will need to repeat or top those performances in order to be a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl.
Think of it this way: The two ways to compete for a Super Bowl are to have a top-notch quarterback or an elite defense. The average defensive yards against rank for an eventual Super Bowl champion is seventh and 14 of the 51 winners have ranked No. 1 in points against.
And if the Vikings are going to be elite, they will need nose tackle Linval Joseph to dominate as much or more than he has in the past.
With Sharrif Floyd on the shelf for the foreseeable future with a potentially career-ending knee issue, the Vikings drafted DT Jaleel Johnson and signed two other interior defensive linemen Datone Jones and Will Sutton. Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson will also be in the mix in the middle.
While Johnson is a proven pure pass rusher, none of the other options come without question marks. Last season in Green Bay, Jones played outside linebacker, so it’s unclear whether he can make the transition to the inside, Johnson is a fourth-round pick and Sutton, who is 6-foot-1, 322-pounds, does not have a single career sack and will likely be Joseph’s main backup.
This means the pressure will be on Joseph to anchor the defensive line. As valuable as Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen may be, there are others who can help rush the passer if one of them gets hurt or struggles a la Brian Robison or even Anthony Barr, who has spent some time rushing off the edge during his first three years. If Joseph isn’t in the lineup or isn’t at the top of his game, both the pass rush and the run stopping efforts of the Vikings will be affected.
Tom Johnson explained Thursday what Joseph brings to the D-line.
“He eats up centers,” Johnson said. “He’s a big guy that’s strong. He’s 335 or 340 pounds and he’s pound-for-pound the strongest guy on our team. Easily. And he’s quickly. You don’t see big guys like that move like that. If you watch film, you watch practice tape, this guy can move, he can run and eat up screens, he’s throwing centers around, he’s very disruptive. That makes him great. And he’s hungry. He’s out here every day trying to get to the ball, trying to get better, trying to master his craft and it definitely shows on Sundays.”
Joseph has been one of the most consistently excellent players at his position in the league, whether it was playing the three-technique role in New York or as the nose tackle in Minnesota. But his best year came in 2015 while next to Floyd – who is an exceptional player when healthy. Here are Joseph’s Pro Football Focus ratings over his seven-year career:
Joseph is nearly unblockable one-on-one, so opponents are forced to attempt to handle the Vikings’ outside edge rushers with running back or tight end help while the three-technique DT gets a one-on-one matchup with a guard.
“Actually he’s taking some of the plays that I’m supposed to be making,” Johnson said laughing. “But definitely guys are looking for him. If he’s on the two-tech, which is sometimes in the nickel package where I play over the guard but on the inside, Linval works those guys. He makes them think [his] power is the first thing they have to be aware of. Then, me being a guy that’s quick and agile, it opens up a lot of different things between me and him.
“So he definitely wears guys out. He’s a monster. He makes teams have to focus more on him, which opens up a lot for the three-technique, so he’s a large part of our defense. He makes a big difference and you can really tell when we don’t have him around what we’re missing.”
Johnson also pointed out that chemistry on the defensive line is vital to its success and the fact that he, Joseph, Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter have all been together for at least three years allows them to work in lockstep.
“Coach Zimmer calls the front and most of the things that you see us do out of that package is just us out there having fun and looking at matchups,” Johnson said. “This will be my fourth year and coach Zimmer’s fourth year and he has the confidence in us to give us that leeway to go out there and gel off each other.”
In an interview last season defensive line coach Andre Patterson pointed out that putting true value on Joseph is different than other positions like defensive end because of how many things operate around his ability to control the middle.
“He doesn’t play a so-called ‘sexy position. When people rate defensive linemen, they rate them off sacks,” Patterson said. “They look at sack numbers and say, ‘oh this guy’s good because he gets sacks and this guy isn’t good because he doesn’t get sacks,’ but if you rate them off value to win games – what does he do against the run, how does he affect the passing game – he’s the best nose tackle in the league.”
The Floyd Replacements will have to step up their game around Joseph. While the Vikings ranked No. 1 last season by Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which tweaks sack numbers to reflect the number of passes thrown against and were ninth in stopping runs on short yardage or goal line situations – which would directly indicate Joseph’s ability to own the middle – Minnesota was 31st in Stuffed Runs. That was likely caused by Floyd’s absence and a lack of big plays in the run game from linebackers.
Every piece works off the others to have a successful defense – and the Vikings have all sorts of terrific pieces – but having an elite defense starts with the largest, strongest man on the field.