Vikings position analysis: Defensive tackles

The Vikings were riding a young group of defensive tackles in 2014. While they seemed to perform relatively well in their first year of Mike Zimmer’s defense, the run defense needs to improve. We take a player-by-player look at defensive tackle as well as the group’s performance as a whole.

Sharrif Floyd
Floyd finished up his second year with the Minnesota Vikings after being drafted in 2013 out of Florida. He was able to make drastic improvements under the teachings of Mike Zimmer, but what was shaping up to be a great year was interrupted with injuries.

He played in 14 of the 16 games, but had to leave early in some of those because of a nagging injury. When Floyd was on the field, he did make an impact for his team. He recorded 42 tackles and 4½ sacks, but he didn’t seem to pick things up until about Week 5 against the Green Bay Packers.

His best game of the season, according to Pro Football Focus, came in Week 11 against the Chicago Bears. In that game he recorded five tackles and had no sacks. That is a key part about Zimmer’s defense, though. Players may not always be getting sacks or tackles, but they are always asked to do things that don’t show up on stat sheets to further help the team.

Floyd was a key part for the Vikings defensive line this past season, and you could see it from time to time that the Viking’s defensive front would struggle more when he was not in the game.

Tom Johnson (FA)
Johnson just finished up his fourth year in the NFL, but his first year with the Minnesota Vikings. Before ending up in Minnesota he started out his career as a rookie free agent with the Indianapolis Colts and then played for the New Orleans Saints for three years. He also spent time in NFL Europa, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League.

Under Zimmer, Johnson seemed to be a new player. This was the first season that he played in all 16 games in a single season, he recorded his second-most tackles in a single season with 22 – he had 28 in 2012 – and had 6½ sacks.

His best game of the season, according to PFF, was Week 6 against the Detroit Lions when he recorded two tackles and a sack. The Vikings lost that game 17-3 and there were not a lot of positives to come from it, but Johnson was still able to make an impact.

In Zimmer’s defense, Johnson’s primary role was as a rotational player. He is a free agent this offseason, so his future is still up in the air, but after a career year it is not hard to imagine that the Vikings will want to keep him around.

Linval Joseph
Joseph just finished up his fifth year in the NFL, and his first year with the Minnesota Vikings. He was the first big unrestricted free agent that the Vikings, and first-year head coach Zimmer, signed. Before Minnesota, he played for the New York Giants and won a Super Bowl in his time there.

He was brought in primarily to be a big run stopper that clogged up the middle of the line, much like former Viking Pat Williams used to be. Joseph finished the year first among Vikings defensive tackles in tackles with 48. He was also able to record three sacks, and Zimmer sang his praises on multiple occasions.

His best game of the season, according to PFF, was Week 6 against the Detroit Lions. In that game he recorded three tackles and a half a sack. He helped lead the way to a game where the Vikings held the Lions to just 100 yards on the ground – Detroit’s leading rusher only had 74 yards.

Joseph was rarely the one making the big splashy plays along the defensive line. Instead, he was usually the one taking up multiple blockers to help other defensive linemen make the splashy plays. That is the reason Zimmer appreciated his work, and a reason why he was brought to Minnesota in the first place.

Shamar Stephen
Stephen just finished up his rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings. He was the first of three seventh-round picks made by the Vikings and was one of the biggest surprises of the season for the Vikings as he played in 15 games and started three of them.

There were multiple times throughout the year when his teammates would refer to him as “the big fundamental.” He is a big guy – measuring in at 6-foot-5 and weighing 310 pounds – and was very fundamentally sound for a rookie. All that helped lead to extended playing time and allowed him to record 23 tackles on the season.

His best game of the season, according to PFF, came in Week 16 against the Miami Dolphins. He didn’t record any tackles or sacks in that game, but he was in the backfield multiple times disrupting plays, as he had two quarterback hurries and one quarterback hit.

The rookie out of UConn was one of the rookies from the 2014 draft class to be able to make an impact on the Vikings this past season. Zimmer said halfway through the year that this rookie class is a good nucleus for the organization to build around, and that remains true today. Stephen will likely be one of the pieces on the defensive line for years to come.

Defensive Tackle Overview
One of the primary jobs for the defensive tackle position is to clog up the middle and stop the running game. The Vikings were a below average team against the run, as they ended the season with the NFL’s 25th rushing defense.

They allowed 1,943 total rushing yards throughout the season, which ended up being 121.4 yards per game. The defense usually seemed to do well against the small, faster running backs but would struggle when they would face the bruising backs – Eddie Lacy eclipsed 100 yards twice against the Vikings.

Of course, that is not all because of the defensive tackle position, but things certainly do start up front. In 2015, they will need to get stronger and healthy, and continue to become more adept at Zimmer’s techniques. A decision will have to be made on whether the Vikings wish to keep Johnson or bring in another player.

In the end, the Vikings are very young in the middle of the defensive line, with Joseph their most veteran player as a fifth-year pro – Johnson is older, but has not been in the league as long. As they continue to gain more experience, their play on the field should continue to improve.

Verdict: Don’t expect many, if any, changes at the position other than to bring in competition at the lower level of the depth chart.

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