The Vikings drafted Stephen 220th overall in the 2014 draft out of the University of Connecticut. During the predraft process, he was described as a lethargic player with average intangibles. It was thought that he was going to be a project player that could take a couple years to mold.
He did have a couple things going in his favor that allowed head coach Mike Zimmer and defensive line coach Andre Patterson to mold him much faster. First off, he was considered a great character guy who did not have off-the-field issues and would work hard. Second, at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds he was a good athlete for a big man.
Because of those reasons, Stephen was able to have a fairly successful rookie season in which he played 404 defensive snaps (37.34 percent). He was even given the responsibility to start three games when Sharrif Floyd was forced to miss time with an injury.
In his rookie year, Stephen recorded 23 tackles with no sacks. Those stats do not look all that impressive on their own, but putting up big numbers isn’t a perquisite for a defensive tackle/nose tackle in Zimmer’s defense. Around the locker room Stephen was referred to as the Big Fundamental because he did everything right. Not only that, but he was always willing to take up blockers so other players could be free to make the play.
Those are the types of players that Zimmer loves to work with and that is a big reason why Stephen received playing time in all 16 regular season games. Now, it is up to Stephen to continue to work hard and improve his game in his second season.
Viking Update takes a look at Stephen’s performance during the 2014 season.
Play No. 1As previously mentioned, Stephen (93) has the ability to tie up multiple offensive linemen. That then opened up lanes for his teammates to make it to the ball unopposed. This first play took place during his NFL debut in the first week of the season. Not only did he take on three blockers, but he also was also able to make the tackle.
When the ball is snapped, Stephen engaged the center and the right guard. The right tackle eventually came over and engaged him as well. That is a lot of big bodies on one player, especially on a running play, which means there should be multiple Vikings defenders running free to the ball. Stephen held his ground initially, also slowing down the pulling left guard a little bit, which only helped his teammates out more.
As the play developed the Rams running back was able to find some open space and make it up field. Stephen had been driven backwards a few yards by the multiple blockers he had engaged, but he was able to disengage them and make a tackle on the ball carrier.
These are the type of fundamentally sound plays that Stephen would make that ultimately helps out his team. The plays aren’t flashy or exciting, but they are what Zimmer likes and they get the job done.
Play No. 2In this next play, Stephen does a good job at tracking New England ball carrier and making the tackle. When the ball is first snapped Stephen is able to step back and avoid the block of the left guard. That also allowed him to see the play develop so he could see what he had to do next.
Instead of just rushing up the field, he chooses to run the length of the line of scrimmage mirroring the path the running back takes. So when the running back tried to cut up field, Stephen was right there to grab ahold of him and bring him to the ground.
Instead of taking up blockers on this play, Stephen was able to avoid getting engaged. Again, this is not any sort of flashy play by Stephen, but it was another fundamentally sound play that led to Stephen making the stop.
Play No. 3One part that went along with Stephen’s good size coming out of college was his strength. He has enough strength to hold his own on the field, especially when he is going one on one with an offensive lineman.
In this play, Stephen is lined up over the center and engages with him once the ball is snapped. The Lions are trying to run the ball up the middle and the offensive line is able to get a push off the ball and move the defensive line backwards, except for Stephen. He is able to stand his ground and avoid getting moved in another direction. He is able to reach out with just one hand and bring the running back to the ground.
Stephen got good extension with his arms from the moment the ball was snapped, which helped him stay where he was on the field and control the blocker. Then he was able to use his strength to stand his ground and bring the running back to the ground.
Play No. 4
Even though Stephen does have good strength, he still needs to get stronger. If he is fundamentally sloppy or is engaged by the offensive line first he doesn’t always have the strength or leverage to make up for his mistake. Even though he was credited with part of the tackle, you can still see that he was overpowered by the blocker in this next play.
When the ball is snapped, the right guard is able to get his hands inside on Stephen and move him to the left. Stephen isn’t able to really do much because he is off balance and does not have his hands on the blocker. This then opens up a big hole in the line for the ball carrier.
If he could have planted his foot in the ground and anchored in, it might have changed the outcome.
Play No. 5If there is one part of Stephen’s game that really needs to be improved it is his ability to rush the passer. He went through his entire rookie season without recording a single sack, and if he wants to see his role with the team continue to grow he could help that cause by getting to the quarterback more often.
This play is probably the closest he came to recording a sack during the season, and even then it came with a little help. The center had him tied up pretty well when the ball was snapped and it seems he only got free because the left guard bumped him off the center. Stephen then had an open shot at the quarterback, but the quarterback threw it just before he could get there for the sack.
The Vikings already have two defensive tackles who are good at rushing the passer – Floyd and Tom Johnson – so Stephen likely will not see the field on many passing downs. But there is always the possibility of a pass-play taking place when he is on the field and he needs to be ready to apply pressure when that happens.
Stephen surprised many people during his rookie season by playing in every game and even starting several. It is not often that you see that from a seventh-round rookie, but this offseason he needs to continue to improve his game. There are several things he can work on, but if he can continue to improve he could become an important player along the defensive line for years to come.