For a handful of weeks the Minnesota Vikings defensive line was holding its own while Everson Griffen dealt with a mental health issue and a smattering of others missed time with various injuries.
Now they’re all back, they’re getting healthier, and they’re building confidence. And for the rest of the NFC North, that should be concerning.
The Vikings sacked Matthew Stafford 10 times in Sunday’s 24-9 win, the most sacks in franchise history. Subtract 56 yards from Stafford’s sacks, and the Lions barely cracked 200 total yards — a feeble showing in Detroit’s first game without recently-traded star receiver Golden Tate.
On the other hand, Minnesota’s pass-rushing unit was the most complete its been all year against Stafford, between an improving — and better-conditioned — Griffen, a seemingly-unstoppable Danielle Hunter, a rejuvenated Tom Johnson and a host of others.
It put forth the 11th double-digit sack performance since the turn of the century.
“Danielle Hunter got one, they celebrated, got everybody crunk,” said corner Xavier Rhodes. “It just trickled down.”
Hunter would have a nine-game sack streak if the game’s official stat keeper in Week 8 hadn’t credited Drew Brees with a rushing attempt on a four-yard loss. Nonetheless, he has 11.5 sacks on the year to lead the league and scored his second career defensive touchdown on a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter.
“He’s a great teammate,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “He’s a great team guy. It’s nice that he got some individual accomplishments today, but really he’s more concerned about how the team does and how the defense plays.”
As Zimmer often asks from his young players, he urged Hunter to be more reactionary in Year 4 of his career; to stop thinking so much. The 24-year-old, who celebrated a birthday last Monday, had his way with Detroit’s offensive line, which had been top 10 in fewest sacks allowed coming into action.
“A lot of young defensive linemen, especially because we harp on stopping the run, they’re nervous,” said Zimmer, “about, ‘Hey, I’m going to take a chance here because I think this is a play action pass,’ or something like that. The thing I notice about Danielle, he just lets it rip now, and that’s what makes him good.”
After signing a five-year contract extension over the summer, Hunter is on pace for a 20-sack season through nine games.
“This is only half of the season,” said defensive tackle Tom Johnson. “He’s already at double-digit [sacks] already. It’s gonna be a crazy year for him. And [Everson]’s coming back. He’s been rusty, so when he starts getting on, pshh, it’s gonna be ridiculous.”
Griffen had 1.5 sacks after admittingly struggling in his first game back against the New Orleans Saints. His reintroduction to the rotation will force teams to choose which explosive pass rusher to focus on most.
Johnson’s presence can’t be overlooked either. He was brought back in Week 3 after getting cut by Seattle and had a career-high 2.5 sacks Sunday against Stafford, including one where he crawled past a blocker to wrap up the Detroit passer.
“We knew that if we could just contain him, keep him in the box, get at his feet that he was either going to hold it or make bad throws,” said Johnson.
Collectively, the defensive line is the straw that stirs the drink in Zimmer’s defense, especially when it gets pressure with a four-man rush and forces hurried throws into tight coverage. “Rush and cover, cover and rush,” Griffen insinuated after the game, a common defensive mantra.
“You’ve got to have guys that can rush in order to get 10 sacks — that’s pretty salty,” said Zimmer. “You have to be able to cover, too. Making the quarterback pull the ball down is important. If he can just get back there and take his five steps and get rid of the ball, you’re not going to get a sack a lot of times.”
In previous games this season, the Vikings defense had softened late and allowed teams to claw back into the game. But with a rotation as deep as it’s been all year, the unit only strengthened against Detroit, recording six of its 10 sacks in the second half and holding the Lions to three points after halftime.
“I was concerned that in the fourth quarter they might wear down,” said Cousins, “because we were asking so much of them to be on the field for as long as they were, and yet they didn’t. I think it was all 11 on defense in terms of coverage and pass rush.”
Griffen, Hunter, Johnson and Linval Joseph — arguably the core of the Vikings defensive line in 2017 — only missed one combined game last year. With Johnson departing and returning, Griffen’s absence from the team and Joseph’s injury, the core four haven’t been together very long in the new season.
The fact that the four of them hit their stride heading into the bye is an important step for the Vikings, who play two division games immediately after the break.
“We did it together,” said Hunter. “It wasn’t just me. It was the defensive line working together, staying in our rush lanes and just getting to that passer.”