EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Everson Griffen stepped into the considerable shoes of Jared Allen. Sharrif Floyd indeed became the replacement for Kevin Williams. Linval Joseph finally filled the long-vacant role of Pat Williams.
The Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line went through its much-expected transition this offseason.
Jared Allen appreciated Minnesota honoring the end of his contract but both sides seemed to know a reunion wouldn’t be in their best interest. Kevin Williams kept an open mind, but chose to sign with Seattle for a chance at the Super Bowl. The Vikings were never able to replace Pat Williams and his substitute, Letroy Guion, was released.
Griffin and Floyd are full-time starters for the first time in their careers, Joseph was a priority free-agent addition and Minnesota is once again counting on its defensive line.
"When you know the feel of each other and you know how each other’s going to rush, and where they’re going to be when they’re going to be, it becomes second nature to us," Griffen said. "We just go out there and do our job and we’re finishing, and we’re getting to the quarterback."
Griffen has received much of the attention with his eight sacks this season, which rank third in the NFL, and for winning NFC defensive player of the month for October, but the success of the rebuilt line has been a group effort. Brian Robison is the only returning starter and the Vikings have had a productive rotation with Tom Johnson, Corey Wootton and Shamar Stephen coming off the bench.
The Vikings are second in the league with 25 sacks heading into Sunday’s home game against Washington, 20 of which have come from the defensive line.
Griffen has already tied his career-high in sacks. Floyd, with three sacks, and Johnson, with five, have already set career-highs. Joseph has 2.5 sacks to go with his role as the run-stuffing nose tackle. Robison has just 1.5 sacks but is second on the team with 21 quarterback hurries.
"We just got to keep doing what we’re doing," Robison said. ". . . Obviously those stats are always fun to have, but we want to win ballgames and that’s really what we’re focused on the most."
Sunday’s win didn’t come without a dominant effort from the defensive line. Minnesota held Tampa Bay to 66 yards rushing and had five sacks, with linebacker Anthony Barr, Griffen, Floyd, Robison and Johnson all bringing down the quarterback.
As the Vikings’ defense has stiffened in the past three games, the line has led the way. Minnesota has the league’s fourth-ranked pass defense and is 16th against the run. The Vikings have learned how to play together and play within coach Mike Zimmer’s scheme.
"I think that’s a big part of it; belief in one another, belief in the system, belief in the techniques and fundamentals, seeing how from week to week that they can get better and then actually going out and performing at a high level and getting better," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "I think that’s all a part of the confidence that they are able to exude from week to week."
Griffen said the difference in the defense has been "night and day" from last season.
"We always had the talent," Griffen said. "But when you get coaches that understand that you’re not going to be in the best position, but they teach you technique to make sure when you’re in that bad position, you can fight over and get in the right position. So the coaches, the coaches and the players are taking it among themselves to go out there and work every single day to get better."
Floyd has noticed the difference in coaching. One technique difference Floyd learned was using short steps.
"It was new to me," Floyd said. "I never was told to play that way, but coach wanted to me to do it so I’m going to work at it. After a while, it actually was comfortable and I played faster and stronger at holding the point in the run game with the short steps. Pass rush, you can take your long steps (if) that’s what you need to do, but it helped a lot in the run game."
Perhaps it’s no coincidence Floyd is coming off his best game of the season. He had eight tackles against Tampa Bay, including one for loss, one sack and one quarterback hit.
Zimmer’s approach changed the way the defensive line attacked opponents. Zimmer stresses playing within the scheme and everyone will have success. Zimmer wants players sticking to their assignments and particular rush lanes and not getting out of position.
"We’re about playing team defense and playing the run as a run, and the pass," Zimmer said. "Some of these sacks that (Griffen is) getting are because Sharrif Floyd flushed him, or Tom Johnson beat the guy inside and pushed him to him. But he has great effort and motor and then he’s also had some really good rushes, too."
Griffen and Robison lead the way in snaps played along the line, but Zimmer’s philosophy also includes a vital rotation. Griffen has played 87 percent of the defensive snaps. Robison has been in on 85 percent. Both have been spelled by Wootton (24 percent).
Inside, the rotation is more pronounced. Joseph and Floyd are the starters and have played 68 and 61 percent, respectively. Johnson has played 36 percent of the snaps and Stephen has been in for 34 percent.
"No player likes to come out the game, but it does benefit," Griffen said. "You really can’t say it doesn’t help you. It does benefit. It gives you that little second wind and you can last longer in the third and fourth quarter."
Together, Minnesota’s line is looking like the once-proud unit of the past.