For the entire Mike Zimmer era in Minnesota, the Vikings’ success on defense has started with Everson Griffen’s ability to rush the passer.
Over the past four years, Griffen has been one of the most consistent edge rushers in the NFL, registering totals of 64, 79, 68 and 66 pressures between 2014 and 2017 (per Pro Football Focus). He was one of the league leaders with 13 sacks despite battling a foot injury for most of the second half of the season.
Now with Griffen reportedly dealing with off-field issues — he is being evaluated at a mental hospital according to NFL Network — the Vikings will have to turn in the direction of two inexperienced defensive ends to fill the void at least for this week’s game against the Los Angeles Rams and possibly longer.
Stephen Weatherly, a 2016 seventh-round pick, took steps forward during training camp and preseason, proving he was worthy of a rotational role. In the first two weeks, he played 32 total snaps. Taking Griffen’s place on Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, Weatherly was on the field for 51 plays.
“Stephen Weatherly came in last week and I thought he played well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “I anticipate that he going to continue to play well. We’ll have to move some pieces around, obviously, but we’ve always tried to make this a team where we play, count on one another, and play together. Injuries happen, you lose guys. We can’t be woe is me you got to go out and preform.”
Few pass rushers on earth have Griffen’s level of impact, so fully replacing his production would be nearly impossible, but Weatherly has performed well in his limited duty. He’s picked up one sack and two QB hits along with seven run stops.
”Everyone doing their job,” Weatherly said Tuesday. “The good thing about coach Zim’s defense is that it doesn’t require any superheroes. Everyone needs to step up.”
Weatherly falls under the umbrella of project defensive ends the Vikings have been drafting under Zimmer. His height, weight and arm length all ranked above the 95th percentile at the NFL Combine, per Mockdraftable, and he ran a 40-yard dash in the 75th percentile. Griffen’s presence has allowed the Vikings to bring him along slowly, giving the former Vanderbilt rusher just 92 defensive snaps last season.
Similarly Bower was an undrafted free agent project in 2017 with well above average height and above average 40 time at the Combine. He rarely saw the field last season, but proved in preseason that he deserved more playing time.
Bower only played 22 snaps against the Bills, but PFF ranked him the highest of any player on the Vikings’ defense.
Both players’ strong camp/preseasons led to the Vikings releasing veteran defensive end Brian Robison.
“We felt like those two young guys had a chance to be good players, and obviously it’s tough about Brian,” head coach Mike Zimmer said following Robison’s release.
On September 3, Griffen said he had been very impressed with the two young D-ends.
“Stephen Weatherly and Tashawn [Bower], they are doing phenomenal,” Griffen said. “They stepped it up big time. They are coming off the ball well. They’re playing the run well. They’re reading in there and in the playbook. They are taking the right steps. Using their inside hands, doing all the right things. I feel good about them. I know the coaches do. I tried to help them out as much as possible, anything they need. They’re doing good. I can’t wait to see them play.”
Weatherly’s locker has been next to Griffen’s for the past two seasons. The young pass rusher said his veteran lockermate has pushed him to be prepared for an opportunity such as this one.
”Every day he comes in he gives me a bit of advice,” Weatherly said. “Work hard, keep grinding, you never know when your time is going to come, always be ready. Every day he’s been in here, he’s always taught me to make sure I got my stuff together.”
“It’s tough, I’d much rather have him here not only as a teammate but someone I lean on personally,” Weatherly added.
The Vikings’ defensive line was recently bolstered by the signing of veteran defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who played 68 percent of total snaps for Minnesota last year. His presence could allow the Vikings to mix and match on the D-line depending on the situation. We have not yet seen Anthony Barr as a defensive end, though he worked there on occasion during training camp.