Less than 10 months ago, an exciting Vikings season ended unceremoniously. The hopes of playing for the Super Bowl in their own building were dashed as the Eagles celebrated a 38-7 shellacking in Philadelphia. Nick Foles, career journeyman turned folk hero, had shredded the NFL’s top defense in a way no one thought possible.
So many things deserve blame or credit for that performance: the Eagles’ gameplan targeting Harrison Smith. Case Keenum crashing back to earth. Coverage lapses. Poor blocking. All of it played a role. But perhaps none of those deserve a bigger share of blame than what happened to the defensive line. In that game, Foles had all day to scan the field, make plays for chunk yardage and surgically dissect the elite Vikings secondary. Aside from Danielle Hunter, who had over a third of the Vikings’ pressures that game, the defensive line simply seemed gassed. As a result, Foles essentially had a blank canvas on which to paint.
Minnesota kept a pretty tight defensive line rotation a year ago. Hunter, Everson Griffen, Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph played an overwhelming share of the snaps, with Brian Robison playing a handful of third downs and Shamar Stephen spelling when necessary. Stephen Weatherly also took his shots in run down situations or whenever Griffen and Hunter needed a longer break. But once Stephen went down with injury towards season’s end, the Vikings essentially had five men for the postseason. And it showed, especially up the middle, where Minnesota struggled to generate much pressure in the playoffs.
Flash forward to today. The Vikings still boast their excellent ends in Hunter and Griffen, but now Hunter has developed into one of the league’s elite sack machines. Johnson has been replaced as starting three-technique by Sheldon Richardson, but Johnson is back in the rotation as third tackle. Those are both significant upgrades from a year ago.
And then there is Weatherly. A mere afterthought in 2017, a run specialist who played mostly during Hunter and Griffen’s breathers, Weatherly is suddenly a more-than-capable third defensive end. He is not merely a play here-and-there guy. Weatherly can play major time with little dip in productivity, including effectively starting during Griffen’s absence. Sure, he does not get Hunter’s sack numbers. But he does get consistent pressure, thanks to a powerful bull rush while continuing to be solid in run defense. As much as Vikings fans love Robison, 2018 Weatherly is probably an upgrade from 2017 Robison, who was 34 and clearly on his last legs.
So assuming health, the Vikings have legitimately six starting-caliber players on their defensive line as they push to the postseason. That means stars like Griffen, Hunter and Joseph can have their wind for the stretch run. It means less dependence on a small group of guys to make plays up front. And hopefully, it means a lot more games like week nine where they sacked the quarterback 10 times.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.