The Minnesota Vikings weren't sure if they could count on Everson Griffen after two spotty seasons, despite the potential he flashed as a pass rusher.
After two games as a nearly-every-down defensive end, Griffen's progress has been clarified. With personal growth through a tragic experience, some technique improvement and a recent chance for more playing time, Griffen has proven his worth and helped strengthen the Minnesota defense at a critical time.
"You've got to take full advantage of the opportunity, and that's all I did," Griffen said after practice Friday. "Just showing them that they can trust in me and that I'm accountable. When your number is called, you have to be ready to play and go in there and perform."
Brian Robison sprained his right shoulder early in the Dec. 16 victory at St. Louis, so Griffen was promoted from his nickel-package role to the base defense. He returned an interception for a touchdown, showing remarkable athleticism to catch the ball cleanly and maneuver toward the end zone, and had three quarterback hurries. In the win on Sunday at Houston, Griffen had a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss.
"One day I will be a starter in the NFL and once that happens I will take full advantage. I'm happy for my progress and just to help this team," Griffen said. "Whatever I can do - inside, outside, whatever - I'm here for the cause and I'm down with the Minnesota Vikings."
Griffen fell to the fourth round in the 2010 draft, coming out of USC after his junior year. He was hampered by a turf-toe injury and inconsistent performance, but Vikings director of college scouting Scott Studwell also described Griffen at the time as a guy who "enjoyed the college life a little bit." With Jared Allen, Ray Edwards and Brian Robison ahead of him, Griffen played sparingly on defense and mostly on special teams coverage as a rookie.
That winter, he was arrested for an alleged assault on a police officer in Los Angeles during a scuffle that ensued from a traffic stop, though a felony charge was not pursued by authorities.
In 2011, Griffen's playing time increased. He had four sacks, four tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries, becoming the primary backup to Allen and Robison after the departure of Edwards. But he was still prone to untimely penalties, and his main value remained on special teams.
With Allen and Robison entrenched in their starting spots, the Vikings experimented in training camp with Griffen at linebacker, but that ended quickly when both parties determined there wasn't a fit. With assistance from new defensive line coach Brendan Daly, Griffen adjusted his hand placement to improve his pass-rush moves. He devoted himself to more film study. And, after the sudden death of his mother in October, Griffen took another step forward in his maturation.
"He's come so far," coach Leslie Frazier said. "Being able to manage his free time, understanding what it means to be a pro and act like a pro, both at practice and in games as well, and off the field. He's one of those guys, as we speak, that has really bought in to the right way of doing things."
Griffen has the quickness to excel at his position. Defensive coordinator Alan Williams, looking at video of the players he inherited soon after he was hired before this season, recalled watching Griffen in action for the first time.
"There was a blur going across the screen and I was thinking, ‘Is that a linebacker? Is that a safety running across the field?'" Williams said. "And I went back and forth a couple of times and I got my program out and looked at it, and it was Everson Griffen. I looked at his height and weight and I was thinking, ‘Wow, we have something here.'"
Griffen has moved to defensive tackle in the nickel scheme when opponents are likely to pass, with Letroy Guion coming out. He also gives Allen and Robison breaks from time to time at end. With Robison questionable to play this Sunday against Green Bay, Griffen is certain to see significant time on the field again. His greatest value is being able to drop back in coverage on zone-blitz calls or get to the quarterback on a rush just as quickly.
"I knew they could count on me from the very beginning, but I proved to them that they really can now," Griffen said. "It's a good feeling. I just want to go out there and keep on improving and helping this team win. That's all I want to do."
Griffen giving Vikings pass-rush options
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