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Vikings DL: More Questions than Answers

Minnesota Vikings v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

While the Vikings defensive secondary seemingly has no shortage of upgrade candidates, from Holton Hill and Cameron Dantzler, to Jeff Gladney and Mike Hughes, it’s a litter tougher to see who steps up for the Vikings along their defensive front.

Lots of Big Shoes to Fill

With the loss of both Linval Joseph and Michael Pierce at nose tackle, as he opted-out for the season, the starting nose tackle for the Vikings will be Shamar Stephen. And while Stephen is better suited to the nose tackle position than 3-technique, this looks to be a downgrade.

Defensive line coach and Co-Defensive Coordinator has talked up Stephen’s game both this year and last as key for allowing Eric Kendricks to roam free and make plays, but #93 himself hasn’t been able to do much of that himself. Whether rushing the passer or defending the run, Stephen has been ‘just a guy’ journeyman defensive tackle, now in his 7th season as a pro.

Stephen is listed at 309 pounds, quite a bit less than the 340 or so that both Linval Joseph and Michael Pierce brought to the nose tackle position, and both of those guys are big-time weight lifters as well. Stephen has never had good stats or PFF grades, and it’s difficult to see him holding up well against the double-teams he’ll face. To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more guards getting to the second-level after bumping past Stephen at nose tackle this year.

Jaleel Johnson, who has been behind Stephen on the defensive tackle depth chart, now looks to be getting some first-team reps at 3-technique. Johnson has never been good at either defensive tackle spot, and has actually gotten worse since entering the league, according to his annual overall PFF grades. It appears that Andre Patterson has him filling the Stephen’s old job as an ‘occupying’ 3-technique, ‘occupying’ as in occupy your blocker so others can make plays.

Overall, what looks like the new interior tandem for the Vikings’ base defense are a pair of mediocre journeymen tasked with occupying the middle rather than making plays, which isn’t their strong suit. Both Stephen and Johnson were near the bottom in run stop % according to PFF, ranking 89th and 78th respectively among the 94 defensive tackles with at least 150 run defense snaps last season.

It’s worth pointing out that in the Vikings’ losses last season, opposing offenses beat them largely on the ground, not in the air. The Vikings gave up an average of 176 yards rushing in the losses against the Packers, Chiefs, Seahawks, and 49ers. The Vikings run defense slipped back to 19th last season, allowing 4.3 yards per carry.

Watts and Mata’afa on Passing Downs?

Behind Stephen and Jaleel Johnson at the defensive tackle spots are Armon Watts and Hercules Mata’afa. Both have more pass rush ability, and figure to rotate in on passing downs. Watts has shown promise during his rookie season, and among all the young defensive linemen, appears the most likely to step-up this season. He could challenge Jaleel Johnson at 3-technique over the course of the season, which would likely force Johnson to a back-up nose tackle job.

Hercules Mata’afa remains unproven at 3-technique as well, although he has once again put on more weight and Mike Zimmer has once again said he looks good in practice so far. He’s also said that Mata’afa could get a ton of reps this season, so there’s a lot riding on how well he develops this season for the Vikings.

Behind him on the depth chart at 3-tech is James Lynch.

Replacing Everson Griffen

Ifeadi Odenigbo will replace Everson Griffen at right end, as Andre Patterson has said he’ll be keeping Danielle Hunter at left end. Odenigbo was more productive from the right side last season, with a pass-rush productivity of 6.6% from the right side. Griffen’s was 7.3%. By comparison, Danielle Hunter’s was 9.7% overall, tied for 4th best in the league. It may be that Odenigbo, with a little more improvement, could replace Griffen’s 2019 production. But this looks like largely a lateral move, rather than an upgrade, at this point. Odenigbo could have a break-out year that could equal one of Griffen’s better years, but that remains to be seen.

The other thing about the loss of Griffen, and Linval Joseph, is it creates an opportunity for new leadership. Danielle Hunter is the only one who’s performance is worthy of a leadership role, but he’s more of a quiet, lead-by-example guy. I suspect Eric Kendricks may assume more of a leadership role with the defensive line, and perhaps Shamar Stephen as someone who’s been around a while. If Hercules Mata’afa steps up his game, I could see him emerging as a leader up-front as well.

Defensive Line Vulnerable

But with Michael Pierce out, and still no proven answer at 3-tech, the Vikings are basically going with backup caliber defensive tackles, and really only one top player along the defensive line in Danielle Hunter. It’s a significant drop-off after that, and also one that could lead to teams basically doubling Hunter with a TE and tackle to limit his productivity.

What’s more, if stopping the run looks to be the weak link in the Vikings defense, more teams may focus on doing just that: running the ball against the Vikings. Clearly the 49ers had success doing so, as did the Seahawks and Packers. These are the teams the Vikings need to beat to get further this year.

Without any proven upgrades, and one likely downgrade, what changes?

Scheme?

In his comments last week, Andre Patterson didn’t say anything to suggest a possible scheme change up front. He talked about the inter-changeable nature of the his defensive tackles and keeping Danielle Hunter on the left side, except perhaps in some game-specific situations, as was the case last year in limited reps. All that suggests no scheme change.

But in his comments to the media yesterday, Anthony Barr was asked about Dom Capers and any potential changes that may bring. Barr said Capers was working primarily with the defensive backs at the moment, and that up-front they were focused on doing the basic things at this point in training camp. He went on to say, however, that later on they may work on some different schemes or looks up-front that, “may not be noticeable to the eye right away, but feel a little different to us on the field.”

We’ll have to wait-and-see what that means, but based on both Barr’s comment, and comments from Adam Zimmer that they’ve been focused on executing the basic plays they know they will call, and haven’t done as much with new installs based on time constraints.

One of the possibilities outside of a 4-3 Under front, which I’ve talked about earlier this year but doesn’t seem to be in the immediate future, is incorporating some fire-zone blitzes - something Dom Capers is known for. Often paired with Cover-3, there are a wide variety of fire-zone blitzes to attack different formations, personnel groups, blocking schemes, and down-and-distance situations against both run and pass.

Fire-zone blitzes essentially involve the shifting of one or more defensive linemen by having them slant/loop/twist to another gap, and typically a linebacker (or DB) blitzing the gap that is created by the linemen’s movement. Here is an example of a firezone run blitz:

Firezone Run Blitz

Here the 3-technique (T) slants to the interior gap, while the nose tackle (N) loops around to the opposite B gap. The right end (E) walks/shifts inside and rushes through the guard to pinch the other A gap, while also covering the B gap on his side. Collectively that stuffs the interior gaps, and allows the weakside linebacker (W) to flow and fill as needed.

Meanwhile, the middle linebacker (M) blitzes outside the tackle for run contain, as does the left end (E). If it were pass, the strongside linebacker (S) and strong safety (SS) would cover seam routes, but if the tight-end (Y) or X-receiver (X) block, they too converge on the run from the outside, making it difficult for the back to bounce it outside.

The corners and free safety play a Cover-3 zone, each with a deep third of the field if it were pass, but otherwise converge in run support.

There are any number of fire-zone blitz concepts, and Dom Capers knows them as well as any active coach in the league. Most are designed around a 3-4 front, but can be modified for a 4-3, with typically Cover-3 coverage behind.

These pressures could allow a guy like Hercules Mata’afa to be more effective against the run, by using his quickness to slant/loop/twist, giving him better angles and generally getting more production out of what is otherwise a bit undersized interior defensive line.

The risk here is if a pass is called or audibled, and the strong safety or strongside linebacker gets beat on a seam route, it’s a big play.

Late Acquisition?

The Vikings traded for defensive tackle P.J. Hall earlier this month, to bolster their interior line after Michael Pierce opted-out, but Hall didn’t pass his physical so the deal was voided. But the fact that the Vikings were interested in taking on another defensive tackle, and still haven’t done so, suggests they may still be in the market to pick one up.

Damon Harrison and Marcell Dareus are a couple available free-agents that could give the Vikings a bigger presence at nose tackle, and in run defense. Both guys are past their prime, but still likely upgrades over Shamar Stephen.

Bottom Line

Despite Danielle Hunter emerging as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, the Vikings defensive line has slowly been degrading over the past few years as key guys like Everson Griffen and Linval Joseph had become less effective due to injury and age. Michael Pierce looks to be an upgrade over Joseph at NT, but his opt-out now creates problems for the Vikings interior defensive line and run defense. Moreover, the Vikings have struggled to find a a solid 3-technique and appear to be putting their hope in guys like Hercules Mata’afa and Jaleel Johnson stepping-up this year. We have yet to see signs of their stepping it up on tape, so that creates questions about their ability to do so.

On the positive side, guys like Ifeadi Odenigbo and Armon Watts look like they are stepping-up based on their play last season, and hopefully will continue to do so with a bigger role. But that still leaves questions about run defense, where the Vikings have slipped last season and don’t appear to have a Plan B in place that can see them improve in that area after Michael Pierce opted out.

Moreover, any potential scheme changes or wrinkles that may help existing personnel seem to be on the back burner, as the Vikings - like other teams - struggle to get ready for the season with significant time/practice constraints due to Covid-19. That also seems to be impacting any potential rookie defensive linemen from having much of a role this year, with even more developed guys like James Lynch currently taking third team reps.

And so, unlike the Vikings defensive secondary, there isn’t any tangible evidence of improvement for the Vikings defensive line at this point. Acquiring a guy like Damon Harrison or Marcell Dareus could help in run defense, but it’s getting pretty late now for them to get up to speed and in playing shape. It’s unclear what kind of shape either of those nose tackles are in- Dareus underwent season-ending core muscle surgery last October, and who knows about Harrison, who’s also missed time due to injury in recent years. Apparently the Packers offered Harrison what was rumored to be a decent offer, but he turned it down. Maybe he’s looking for more money than the Vikings are willing to offer.

In any case, without any further changes, the Vikings will be banking on improvement from a few guys like Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa, and Ifeadi Odenigbo to help them improve this season. At the moment that improvement seems a bit more of a projection than what we’ve seen from the CBs so far in training camp and on game tape.

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Do you think the Vikings defensive line will be improved this year?

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