EAGAN, Minn. – The Minnesota Vikings’ 10-sack performance against the Detroit Lions was not random. It wasn’t purely a product of a lost quarterback or struggling offensive line. Instead it was a glimpse at how good the Vikings’ defensive line can be when operating at full strength. And because of a stroke of good fortune and the organization’s ability to develop defensive linemen, Mike Zimmer’s defensive line now has the capability to carry them to the top of the NFC North.
Sunday’s demolition of Matthew Stafford and the Lions began with the return of Pro Bowler Everson Griffen, who picked up two sacks, one QB hit and three hurries, according to Pro Football Focus. After playing only 37 snaps in his first game back after a five-game absence, Griffen was in for 52 plays, which led the defensive line. Detroit totaled 70 offensive snaps.
Last year it would have been surprising for the Vikings’ veteran superstar to see any fewer than 80 percent of plays.
On the interior of the Minnesota’s D-line, neither Linval Joseph or Sheldon Richardson topped 75 percent of total snaps.
The return of Griffen combined with development of Stephen Weatherly and unexpected early-season addition of Tom Johnson have given the Vikings a defensive line rotation that mirrors the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
That was something the Vikings sought out in the offseason.
“I think the biggest thing you’re seeing in the NFL now is the defensive line rotation to keep these guys fresh throughout the season,” general manager Rick Spielman said in late March. “I give Philadelphia a lot of credit, they used an eight-man rotation last year and you could see the results of that. If we can keep building the depth on the defensive line that will pay dividends down the road.”
Against the Lions, Weatherly spelled either Griffen or league-leading sacker Danielle Hunter for 31 total snaps and picked up four pressures, including one sack. This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Filling in for Griffen, Weatherly was impressive. He totaled nine pressures between the Vikings’ key matchups with the Rams and Eagles in Weeks 4 and 5. Now he gives the Vikings an opportunity to have a fresh pass rusher coming off the bench and insure that Griffen will not be worn down in the fourth quarter.
On Monday, Zimmer talked about Weatherly’s growth.
“Stephen Weatherly has come a long way in a short among of time, really,” Zimmer said. “A year ago I wouldn’t have guessed that he would be playing this much or doing the things that he is doing. He had a nice rush and sacked Stafford one time, he had a couple of nice rushes where he hit the quarterback right after he threw it. There were things that he was doing that were not allowing him to rush as well as he’s doing now, but [defensive line coach Andre Patterson] has been on him about working on different things to get better.”
Zimmer added that the development of younger players on the D-line like Weatherly, Jaleel Johnson (who played 16 snaps and had two hurries) and Tashawn Bower has been pushed along by the team’s stars.
“They all go down there to pass rush, and as soon as one of them gets done Danielle will come over or Griff [Everson Griffen] will come over and say, ‘Hey, here’s what you did, and here’s what you have to do,'” Zimmer said. “I do think a lot of it, when you have success and guys see themselves getting better, I think it leads to more listening to the coaching and things like that.”
In total, Weatherly has 20 pressures on 222 pass rush snaps and 18 run stops. He’s also been used on occasion in coverage on zone blitzes. His pressure rate of 9.0 percent isn’t far from Eagles rusher Derek Barnett’s 2017 rate of 11.1 percent.
The Vikings hit the lottery when Seattle inexplicably released Tom Johnson, with plans to add him back to their roster after a week. Patterson talked Johnson into a Minnesota return instead of going back to the Seahawks. His addition has quickly paid dividends for the Vikings. The veteran three-technique had 2.5 sacks and five total hurries.
Last year Johnson played nearly 800 total snaps, 542 coming on the pass rush and added 34 pressures. During his time as a Viking, the 34-year-old has scored as high as an 11.0 percent pressure rate (2015). He’s sitting at 10.0 percent currently.
Johnson can effectively give Richardson plays off or play alongside Richardson on obvious pass-rush downs. He has lined up 87 times on the defensive left, 67 times on the right, 14 times at left end and 20 times at right end (per PFF).
Giving Joseph plenty of rest is key for the Vikings. He was integral in shutting down Detroit’s run game. They averaged just 2.8 yards per carry on Sunday. Over his past four games, Joseph has not played more than 44 snaps.
The Vikings will need every member of their D-line rotation going forward. After a huge primetime contest with the Bears on November 18, they play Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson in back-to-back-to-back weeks.
“I do feel like we’re starting to look a lot more like I kind of expect us to [look] and I hope we continue to do that,” Zimmer said.