With the Minnesota Vikings leading 24-16 in the final two minutes as San Francisco tried to mount a game-tying drive, Sheldon Richardson cast aside rookie Mike McGlinchey and exploded toward Jimmy Garoppolo’s midsection.
Garoppolo hurried a throw over the middle that was intercepted by Harrison Smith to seal Minnesota’s Week 1 victory.
The Vikings made two big additions to their defense in the offseason: rookie Mike Hughes — who had a pick-six in the second half — and Richardson, who found himself at the center of many of the game’s most influential plays.
“Sheldon played very well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “Rushed the passer well. Played the run good. I told him I hadn’t seen that guy before. He came out and played really, really well.”
Pro Football Focus‘ initial grades ranked Richardson’s performance as the fourth best amongst interior defenders across the league, behind only Washington’s Matt Ioannidis, Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox and teammate Linval Joseph. His logged six tackles, half a sack and three quarterback hits in the game.
“Having him shoot up the middle, I’m going to have to get my get off even better the way that he played today,” said linemate Everson Griffen after the win.
Richardson made an impact early as he notched his half sack against a double team in the first quarter, splitting between Weston Richburg and Mike Person to trip up Garoppolo in the pocket inside his own 10-yard line.
Griffen finished him off for the other half.
The new 3-technique assisted on another would-have-been sack in the first half, pushing Laken Tomlinson into his own quarterback and opening the door for Danielle Hunter to sack Garoppolo on a 2nd and goal, but the play was nullified by a penalty in the secondary. Two plays later, though, Richardson helped Andrew Sendejo grab Alfred Morris at the goal line as Sendejo stripped the football for a key turnover near the end zone.
“He does a lot of things well,” said guard Tom Compton, who faces Richardson in practice. “He’s really fast off the ball. He can disrupt in the run game. You saw him chasing guys down yesterday, so he’s definitely a powerful player and somebody you’ve got to look out for.”
Richardson had a pair of additional pressures that rushed Garoppolo and led to key incompletions. He again beat Tomlinson in the third quarter to get a free run at the quarterback as Garoppolo slightly overthrew tight end George Kittle, who dropped what could have been a massive gain.
One play later, Hughes returned an interception to give Minnesota a two-touchdown lead.
Later, Richardson beat McGlinchey on 3rd and goal, forcing a rushed, high throw to the back of the end zone for Kittle that should have been a touchdown. “I can’t jump 40 inches at 250 pounds.” Kittle joked after the game. “It’s hard for me.”
Perhaps Richardson’s biggest error on Sunday was a roughing-the-passer penalty on third down after beating McGlinchey and leveling Garoppolo in the fourth quarter.
He made up for it with the clean hit that precipitated Smith’s game-winning pick.
“Now it’s on tape, and I know what he’s gonna look like and what he’s supposed to look like,” said Zimmer, “but he played very, very well. He was strong at the point of attack in the running game, he made a lot of tackles, he played real hard, pushed the pocket.”