D-line learning to play off each other

The Vikings defensive line has a lot of new parts and a new team concept that players are beginning to embrace, and see the benefits.

Over the first six weeks of the season, the Vikings defense had 14 quarterback sacks. While much of that was logically attributable to the run of Pro Bowl/Super Bowl quarterbacks the Vikings faced early in the season, things came together last Sunday when they faced the Buffalo Bills.

It seemed that a light went on with the Vikings defense last Sunday, especially on the defensive line. Everson Griffen recorded three of the team’s six sacks, pushing him into second place in the NFL with a season total of seven.

Griffen got a lot of the fanfare, but much of the success was attributable to the Vikings defense buying into the Mike Zimmer defensive concept of bringing pressure to the quarterback. Often times, the recipient of a sack is the result of another defender collapsing the pocket and making the quarterback move. Brian Robison has been credited with just a half-sack this season, but he has graded out well because he has flushed the quarterback often.

Griffen may have the big sack numbers, but often times it’s a group effort to make sacks happen.

“It’s about our front four working together,” Robison said. “(Griffen) reaped the benefits of it Sunday and it’s a testament to his hard work ethic and the things he does with our D-line. It’s just about all four guys working together. That’s really what it’s about. All four guys working together, it allowed one or two guys here or there to have more success. That’s what we have to do. We have to keep rushing together as a front four. If we keep doing that, the success will come.”

Zimmer believes that if players take the approach of being assignment-sound, they don’t need to have looping rushers to get to the quarterback. A defensive end can set up a sack for a defensive tackle and vice versa. Griffen is in the spotlight because of his consistent sack numbers, but Zimmer believes that sack numbers aren’t an individual stat, rather a team stat.

“Everson is a high, high energy guy that wants to be very, very good,” Zimmer said. “I believe that he’s bought into everything that Coach (Andre) Patterson and Coach (Robb) Akey are trying to teach them as far as not only the pass-rush things, but buying into playing the run, too. I think that allows him to have success. I didn’t even know how many sacks he had until I asked somebody the other day, but we with the Vikings are more about the sack numbers as opposed to individual sack numbers. … It’s nice for an individual to have statistics, but it’s more important to me that the team allows guys to have things and if we continue to keep working on the things that we’re doing, it’ll allow other guys to get some.”

Griffen has seen the results that can happen when the Vikings defense can throttle down the run game. With the exception of one big run by C.J. Spiller, a carry that ended his season, the Vikings consistently forced Buffalo into poor down-and-distance situations, which Griffen said opened up the pass rush to get their half-dozen sacks.

“Stopping the run, that’s big,” Griffen said. “If a team can run the ball on you all day, then they’re going to play-action you to death. Play-action is hard, but if you are able to stop the run and get them into passing situations, that’s the time you’re able to go out there and rush the passer like you get paid to do.”

Although the Vikings lost the game Sunday, for the defense, it was a viewed by many as a precursor of things to come. The Vikings have lost their last two games but have allowed just 17 points in both. If the offense can catch up to the defense, good things may be on the horizon for the Vikings.

Watching game film, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd saw a lot of good things to take away from a bad situation.

“It felt great for the entire defense,” Floyd said. “It was great to go out there and execute the things that the coaches wanted us to do. When you work as a group, good things will happen. We’re all looking to do our job and create situations that we can make plays.”

The concept of Zimmer’s defense is for the defensive line to stick to the assignment of the play and not freelance. When linemen lose their gap integrity, bad things tend to happen and last Sunday the Vikings did as good a job of fulfilling that coaching mantra as they have all season.

“We don’t want the (quarterback) just running around back there, having holes that he can escape and be able to look downfield,” Robison said. “We want to make sure they get antsy and see our front four guys collapsing the pocket and getting down on him. If we can do that, it helps our DBs as well.”

If the defensive line is able to consistently put pressure on the quarterback, the clock in his head that tells him when to get rid of the ball speeds up and the benefit can be reaped at all three levels of the defense. Although the Vikings didn’t get an interception Sunday against the Bills, the pressure the defensive front can create will be realized in terms of turnovers.

“It’s kind of a ripple effect,” Harrison Smith said. “If we’re getting pressure up front, it makes the quarterback throw the ball before he wants to. We have players in our secondary that can make plays, so if a quarterback is rushing passes to get them out before he gets hit or gets sacks, we can make them pay for that.”

The Vikings are sitting at 2-5 and being viewed by many as a virtual 2014 afterthought. But there is still a positive buzz in the locker room that the transition into the new defensive scheme is taking hold and the best of 2014 is yet to come, despite coming off the most gut-wrenching loss of the season.

“A year ago around this time, our record was somewhat similar and, looking back, by this time guys around the locker room were sad and down on themselves,” Floyd said. “We’re still up. We’re still fighting. We learned from this last game that we can fight, stand in there and throw blows as well. Getting ready for this next one, we’re going to continue to fight.”

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