Injuries, trades and free agent departures have forced the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line to adapt to a new norm: Performing without star power.
There was only one NFL team that suited up no Day 1 or Day 2 draft picks on the defensive line in Week 10. You guessed it: Minnesota.
Against the Chicago Bears on Monday night they played three fourth-round picks, a sixth-round pick, a seventh-round pick and two undrafted free agents, yet that group alone generated 14 pressures on Nick Foles as the Vikings held an opposing quarterback in check for the third straight week.
After Ngakoue was traded during the Vikings bye, the youthful defensive line was essentially given a 10-game audition to see who could earn opportunities, and they’re making the most of them as the team has gone 3-0 in that span.
“I just think that we’re together every single week, and by just going out and competing, you start to form a bond with guys, even with a lot of younger guys,” said fourth-year defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson, who finds himself in a starting role. “So I just think that every single week we are going out and competing. That just forms a really strong bond with everyone.”
The Vikings have deservedly developed a reputation for grooming unheralded pass-rushers under the tutelage of defensive line coach Andre Patterson. Ifeadi Odenigbo, Shamar Stephen and Stephen Weatherly were seventh-round picks that became useful players, for example. Griffen was a fourth-rounder. Tom Johnson was undrafted. But along the way the Vikings have injected higher-drafted stars to lead the way. Sharrif Floyd and Sheldon Richardson were first-round picks at 3-technique, Linval Joseph was a second-rounder brought in to play nose tackle, and Danielle Hunter was a third-round edge rusher.
Two seasons ago, the starting defensive line consisted of a former first-, second-, third- and fourth-round pick that each had at least one Pro Bowl under their belt. This year it features two fourth-round picks and two seventh-round picks with a combined zero appearances, and Patterson couldn’t be happier.
“I asked them in a meeting,” Patterson said Thursday, “‘OK, how many first-round picks are in this room? Raise your hand.’ And nobody raised their hand. ‘How many second-round picks in this room?’ Nobody raised their hand. ‘How many third-round picks in this room?’ Nobody raised their hand.
“OK, so the bottom line is, OK, it doesn’t matter what round you came in. What matters is what you do when you get here, and are you willing to pay the prices every day to improve as a player? And that’s how I see myself as a coach, so I identify with those guys. I had to work the hard way to get here. I had to work the hard way to stay here. So I identify with those kind of guys, and those guys I love coaching.’’
There may not be a greater underdog than undrafted pass-rusher Hercules Mata’afa, who has battled through a torn ACL, two position changes and an October release on his way to seemingly finding a niche on the Vikings’ defensive line. Minnesota struggled to make it work with Mata’afa as a 3-technique because of his undersized frame, but his latest move to the edge seems to have unlocked some of the third-year pro’s athleticism.
Mata’afa has been vocal on social media about deserving a place in the league, and you can’t argue with his production: 10 pressures the last three weeks out of 67 pass-rush snaps. His resurgence at defensive end resembles that of both starting edge rushers Ifeadi Odenigbo and Jalyn Holmes, who the Vikings tried to fit in as interior rushers early in their careers. There’s been a lot of trial and error to put this group of, well, misfits together.
“We kind of just get out in the mud, and that’s how Dre likes to have his guys in the room,” Mata’afa said. “We all just have that underdog mentality where we don’t care. We are just going out there and playing ball.”
The collective Q-score of the Vikings’ defensive line might be a league-low. Their sack leader is playing for the Baltimore Ravens. Their highest-paid player is Shamar Stephen, who is in the middle of a tidy three-year, $12.45 million contract.
Underdogs through and through.