Starting big and ending fast. That might be a good way to summarize the Minnesota Vikings’ present defensive tackle rotation.
With Shamar Stephen brought in to help replace Sheldon Richardson and beef up the team’s run defense that sagged in 2018, the Vikings have largely maintained a hefty look on the defensive line for first and second down.
But get into passing downs and the Vikings are sending out their speediest options.
For the last two weeks, defensive ends Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo have teamed up as the preferred inside pass-rushing tandem. Odenigbo recorded his first career sack last Sunday against rookie Daniel Jones as the Vikings pummeled the new Giants passer.
It’s the latest attempt from Zimmer and Co. to find the perfect mix of size, strength and speed at the line of scrimmage. The preseason was tumultuous as presumed starters Linval Joseph and Stephen missed several weeks, meaning Jalyn Holmes, Jaleel Johnson, Hercules Mata’afa and Armon Watts got most of the first- and second-team reps in their stead. While Johnson still rotates in consistently as a backup run-stuffer, it’s two defensive ends in Weatherly and Odenigbo who are getting the nod on passing downs. Mata’afa played with Weatherly the first three weeks before being replaced by Odenigbo in Weeks 4 and 5.
“We just thought Ifeadi might give us a little bit more push,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “Just another matchup thing we were trying to do.”
The pairing worked well against the Giants as Odenigbo and Weatherly generated six combined pressures.
For Weatherly, it’s a new role. The former seventh-round pick had a breakthrough in 2018 when he filled in at defensive end for the absent Everson Griffen, but he wasn’t used on the inside until this season. Even though the bodies are bigger, Weatherly notes that the speed of the game picks up on the interior.
“Things happen a lot quicker,” he said. “Bigger bodies, so you’ve got to really be more detailed with what you do when you go inside.”
His partner for the last two games, Odenigbo, who also works opposite of Weatherly as a backup defensive end, should be more familiar with the inside spot. He was asked to play it in the preseason of 2018 — a request he didn’t necessarily love — before transitioning back to D-end this season after spending short stints with the Browns and Cardinals last year. Weatherly still sees it as his duty to get Odenigbo lined up, however, as game film showed him doing on their first rep together in last Sunday’s game. Odenigbo initially lined up over the center, but Weatherly pushed him aside to the 3-technique spot.
“Ifeadi is just a go-getter, Weatherly said. “He puts his hand down, he just runs. One thing I have to do is just get him in the right place and let him do what he does best, so that really works out well. It allows Ifeadi to show his athleticism and really show his ability to get past offensive linemen.”
.@IfeadiOdenigbo left his mark on MetLife Stadium last Sunday 😂
— Minnesota Vikings (@Vikings) October 10, 2019
While Odenigbo is known for his agility, it was a power rush against New York’s center that earned him his first-ever sack in the second quarter last Sunday. Odenigbo, who has fluctuated weight while switching between defensive line positions over his three-year career, put in time training this past offseason at Ignition Athletics just south of his childhood home in Ohio. His workouts focused on mobility and explosion.
“He’s embraced those positions and done a good job when his number’s been called,” said defensive coordinator George Edwards. “He’s been able to step up and make some plays for us, so we just look for him to continue to develop.”
He and Weatherly provide explosive potential in their new subpackage. Weatherly’s 4.61 40-yard dash at the combine would’ve ranked sixth amongst edge rushers last year. Odenigbo’s 4.72 would’ve ranked 14th. The two have been interchangeable, able to set up over the center or outside the guard.
Combined with Pro Bowl edge rushers Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen on the outside, the four defensive ends lined up together on each of New York’s third-down attempts of five yards or longer last Sunday.
“It can create mismatches. I think we work well together,” Griffen said. “Just pin your ears back and rush, work your rush plan and go out there and be physical and be a combative rusher.”
After the Vikings finished 15th against the run in 2018 and lost Richardson, Zimmer emphasized getting bigger up front, so he brought back Stephen — a Viking from 2014-17 — to plug run gaps. Thus far, Stephen has played the highest percentage of snaps (60.2%) in his career, and Zimmer’s plan seems to be working with the Vikings ranked ninth against the run, though there has been a dropoff in pressures from the starting defensive tackles. Through five games last year, Joseph and Richardson had 26 combined pressures. This year, Joseph and Stephen have just seven.
But with the Vikings’ big men staying disciplined against the run, Hunter, Griffen, Eric Wilson and Anthony Barr have gotten to the quarterback with 11 combined sacks, the team as a whole has nine more pressures than it did this time last year (103 vs 94), and the inside rushers have provided a burst on third downs.
We’ll see if the all-DE subpackage is here to stay.
“Those big interior linemen are usually your bigger, stronger but also less athletic type of guys,” Weatherly said, “so for a defensive end to go in there and really show what they’ve got, it allows them to just go in there and use that mismatch and get some pressure — hopefully some sacks.”