The Big Fella Who Makes the Vikings’ D So Nasty
MINNEAPOLIS — The largest and loudest player on the Vikings’ roster toils in anonymity, lost in the scrum of entangled linemen that rarely gets noticed by TV cameras or analysts. But Minnesota’s coach, Mike Zimmer, couldn’t lose track of Linval Joseph even if he tried. When the 6-foot-4, 329-pound nose tackle isn’t silently terrorizing offenses on the field, he’s a sideline hype man constantly chirping in Zimmer’s ear.
“Keep coming after them, coach,” he’ll bark. “Keep your foot on the pedal, coach.”
The headman always obliges with a, “Yes, sir.”
That was never more evident than two weeks ago when, during the final minutes of the Vikings’ lopsided 31-13 win over the Texans, Joseph lobbied to go back into the game. Minnesota had a pass-rushing defense on the field, which is standard procedure when you’re up by four scores. But Houston started running the ball and Joseph got antsy, offended even. So he strapped on his helmet, approached Zimmer and said he needed to go back in ASAP because he couldn’t stomach to see an opponent pound the ball on his home turf.
“We had to put him back out there,” defensive line coach Andre Patterson says, “and they stopped running the ball.”
The Vikings have lost their four most important starters on offense since late August: quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, running back Adrian Peterson and tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith. The trade for Sam Bradford looks to be the roster move of the year, but GM Rick Spielman was willing to ship a first-round pick to Philadelphia because Minnesota’s defense was primed to live up to the team’s Super Bowl aspirations. There’s a difference-maker at every level of this unit: from emerging pass rusher Everson Griffen, to speedy linebacker Anthony Barr, to Harrison Smith, perhaps the best safety in the game. But you won’t find anyone in the locker room who will disagree: the biggest man is one of the biggest reasons why the Vikings stand alone as the NFL’s only undefeated team.
“He really is a center point,” says veteran defensive end Brian Robison, “and he’s probably the best nose guard in the league.”
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During his first four seasons with the Giants, Linval Joseph won a Super Bowl but was “just another guy” on a defense headlined by Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle. Now Joseph is defining a position that can’t be measured by mainstream stats. In many ways, his unexpected rise is the story of the Vikings’ unlikely success this season.
To understand how a nose tackle can be the heart and soul of a defense that ranks first in points allowed and second in yards allowed, you have to understand the team culture that Mike Zimmer started molding when he became the Vikings coach in 2014. His first order of business was finding a nose tackle to anchor his aggressive 4-3 scheme, and Joseph, because of his size and strength, was given a five-year deal worth $31.5 million in free agency.
The Giants, who didn’t make a matching offer, had played Joseph at left defensive tackle, meaning he was asked to play both a 3-technique (lined up on the outside shoulder of the guard) and nose tackle, depending on the offensive formation. “Zim saw more in me,” Joseph says, but the Vikings truly didn’t know what they were getting until his first OTA practice. Patterson, the line coach, watched his charges run bag drills and was blown away by Joseph’s uncommon athleticism and agility for his size. Patterson sought out Zimmer on the practice field and happily reported, “Wait until you see Linval Joseph move!”
The Vikings decided to play him exclusively at nose tackle, keeping him glued to the center’s outside shoulder. This allowed him to hone the techniques and responsibilities of one position. Patterson taught Joseph how to use his hands and arms as levers, something he’d done only sporadically in New York. Joseph also learned where to place his hands based on an opponent’s blocking scheme. He might put both hands on one number of an offensive linemen’s jersey; against a different scheme, he’ll place his inside hand on the jersey number closest to him and his outside hand on the nearest shoulder. “Once he’s able to get his hands in the right spots, he is able to control that guy,” Patterson says, “and once he gets him under control, it’s over, because now he has the ability to get off him and go make a play.”
Anyone who saw Joseph pick up Giants running back Orleans Darkwa and fling all 215 pounds of him to the turf like a rag doll in Week 4 understands his brute strength. “A complete sign of his dominance,” linebacker Anthony Barr says of the takedown. Every teammate polled says Joseph is the strongest player they’ve ever met, including guard Alex Boone, who played in San Francisco from 2010 to ’15 and matched up with Joseph in the trenches. “You ever see a dude bench press 405 with his feet off the ground?” Boone says. “Most people do it with 135 pounds. Crazy. Strongest human alive.”
The hand skills make Joseph all the more dangerous. As a 3-technique tackle in New York, he typically took a long step with his inside foot as soon as the ball was snapped to get on top of the guard. But as a nose guard lined up over the center in Minnesota, he leads with his hands and feels for the flow of the play (he wouldn’t be able to recover if he stepped first and went the wrong way). In Week 2, on a fourth-and-2 stop of the Packers in the red zone, Joseph executed this technique to perfection. He put his hands on the center for a few beats, understood the play’s direction, and shed his blocker to the inside to help bring down the ballcarrier with Brian Robison.
When he’s not making plays, Joseph is still influencing them. His hulking presence is a deterrent to offenses that might otherwise run the ball up the gut. “Wherever he is, you know the ball can’t go there,” Barr says. “It takes the offense out of their game plan.” Joseph’s space-eating capabilities often free linebackers to flow laterally and make plays on the ball. The Vikings are tied with the Bills for a league-leading 12 takeaways (and Minnesota has played one fewer game). It often seems as if the Vikings have an extra player on the field, largely due to their nose tackle being so disruptive. “I couldn’t imagine playing linebacker without him being there,” Barr says.
Zimmer, who is notoriously honest in his assessments and tough on his players, has only one complaint about Joseph. “If he really liked to rush the passer, he could really be dominant,” Zimmer says, “but he just loves playing against the run so much.” In the past, Joseph was wary of vacating his post in the middle of the defense and giving quarterback a crack to slip through. But the coaches have empowered him to take calculated risks this season. Through five games he has three sacks, one short of his career-high. Patterson points to a play Joseph made against the Panthers in Week 3. As the pocket collapsed on Cam Newton, Joseph used a counter move to the inside to shed the center and extended the length of his right arm. He clipped the heels of a scrambling Newton, who injured an ankle on the takedown.
There are plenty of sacks that Joseph creates but doesn’t get credit for on the stat sheet. Consider the safety the Vikings scored in that Carolina game. With the Panthers backed up against their own end zone, they devoted center Ryan Kalil and left guard Andrew Norwell to blocking Joseph. This meant defensive end Danielle Hunter had a one-on-one matchup against left tackle Michael Oher; Hunter flattened his man. Norwell couldn’t disengage Joseph quickly enough to help Oher. Meanwhile, Newton looked to step up in the pocket but couldn’t because Joseph was bulldozing Kalil toward him. Hunter took down Newton in the end zone, a play that swung the momentum to Minnesota.
“Well, if I have two guys, that means somebody has one,” Joseph says with a grin. “That means I am doing my job.”
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The Vikings aren’t shy about their aspirations. In the tunnel leading to the field at the newly built U.S. Bank Stadium, there’s a sign that reads: “Smart players make smart teams. Smart teams win championships.” Joseph, just one of two players on this roster with a Super Bowl ring, keeps telling his teammates about the potential he sees here. “I see a younger, better team now than I did with the Giants. Everybody wants to work together. Everybody helps each other,” says Joseph, who was on the New York team that beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. (The other Vikings player with a ring, Justin Trattou, was on that same Giants team.)
Midway through last season, Joseph started taking over games in a way that no nose tackle had ever done for Zimmer. In a Week 9 win over the Rams, Joseph racked up double-digit tackles. “It all came out after the Rams game last year,” Patterson says. “He shut them down almost by himself. You don’t see a nose guard take over a game very often. From the second day I worked with him, I would tell him, Big fella, you’ve got the ability to dominate games. That was the first game that it actually happened. And it is better than what I even envisioned it being.”
The only speed bump was a toe injury that kept Joseph out of four of the last five regular-season games in 2015. He returned for the playoffs, but nearly everyone inside the Vikings’ Winter Park headquarters wonders if the wild-card loss to Seattle might have gone differently had Joseph been at full strength. The injury probably cost Joseph his first Pro Bowl nod, too. The fact that he’s never received any postseason honors is a sore point for Joseph’s teammates. “Because he is not some big-name guy that f—ing does nothing,” Alex Boone, the guard, says. “Linval is an actual worker.”
Joseph’s worth ethic was molded by a nightly ritual growing up in Gainesville, Fla., where he religiously performed 500 push-ups before going to bed. Nowadays his fitness ritual is the elliptical machine—and it’s become even more important as the Vikings keep winning. Every Wednesday after a win, Zimmer has breakfast sandwiches and burritos waiting for his players in the locker room, with a note: “You help me, I help you.” Joseph weighed about 340 pounds when he arrived in Minnesota, but quickly realized that he could make more plays in this defense if he shed weight. After every practice he hits the elliptical for at least 45 minutes—and goes for even longer on his off-days. “That dude doesn’t stop doing cardio,” Barr says. “He’ll be on there for hours at a time. He said if he didn’t, he’d be like 400 pounds.”
Off the field, Joseph is a happy-go-lucky guy who likes to go restaurant-hopping (a favorite spot is 112 Eatery, for the frog legs and lamb ribs) and playing the card game Uno with friends. “I have never seen someone have more fun playing Uno than Linval,” Barr says.
But the Joseph is also a proud man who doesn’t want to see running backs pad their stats during garbage time. Surely he must feel some disrespect or crave the spotlight or long for the Pro Bowl recognition? He shrugs and says, “I feel like everything is going to come in time. I want to be better than last year, and if I am better than last year, it shouldn’t be a problem to get there. But the Super Bowl is bigger than the Pro Bowl. I won a Super Bowl, and I was so young. Winning another one would be big. Two Super Bowls.”
The thought lingers like the nose tackle in the middle of a scrum. Good luck trying to move him off his spot.
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