D-line will be key for Vikings run defense

The linebackers and defensive backs have received a lot of attention, but the defensive line will have to see improvement come mostly from within as they try to improve a run defense that was in the bottom third last year.

With battles at linebacker and in the secondary, the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line hasn’t received much offseason attention.

But what is often forgotten with all the bad seasons of pass defense the Vikings had before Mike Zimmer’s first year in Minnesota is that the pass defense actually finished seventh in the NFL while the run defense was 25th.

“We always like size, especially up font, in the front seven. You don’t have to be down in the box as much with the safety, so from that aspect of it, we do like the size we have up front. The length is a big thing, especially with the quarterback having to throw over them versus the pass,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said.

With size a factor, the Vikings made one of their biggest – physically and financially – free agent signings of 2014 with nose tackle Linval Joseph. He finished with a solid 73 tackles, tied for seventh on the team, according to coaches’ film review. In addition to three sacks, he added 27 quarterback hurries, fifth on the team.

But when the Vikings signed Joseph, he had recently had shoulder surgery, something the team was aware of. This year, he finished a full offseason of workouts and immersion in the defense.

“He looks so much better to me right now than he did a year ago. Well, he missed a lot of this last year because of the surgery, and then in training camp he got injured,” Zimmer said. “At this point in time, he looks really good to me. He’s doing a lot of things right. He’s a very conscientious kid, hard worker, he wants to be right all of the time and he’s a good kid. I really like the personality of this football team. They understand when I mean business and they joke around with me quite a bit, but I like the personality of this football team. They’re starting to get kind of what I want us to be like.”

In February, despite all the accolades of how the team navigated an injury- and controversy-filled season, Zimmer said he couldn’t wait to get the players back in the facility to show them all the mistakes that helped contribute to a 7-9 season.

The Vikings gave up 1,943 yards rushing in 2014, 139 yards more than they gained, but they averaged 4.4 yards per carry while allowing 4.3. Opposing teams ran the ball 137 more times than the Vikings over the course of the 16-game season.

While much of the improvement will have to come from players like Joseph, they also will rely on a couple of younger defensive ends to step up. Scott Crichton, a rookie in 2014, is expected to have more a role after barely playing on defense last year.

“The biggest thing is now he’s comfortable with the calls, not having to think as much. The one thing we really like (when he was drafted), how hard he plays, the effort he played with, has transferred,” Edwards said of Crichton. “Now he’s playing outside at defensive end, inside at tackle, now he’s not thinking about his assignments, he’s really lined up and able to play all out, so from that aspect of it we think he’s ahead of schedule and look forward to watching him progress through training camp.”

Crichton also got some work at defensive tackle in June, mainly just to see what he can do there. Sharrif Floyd, Joseph, Shamar Stephen and Tom Johnson are expected to be the main tackles in the rotation.

Brian Robison and Everson Griffen will be the starting defensive ends, health provided, but Crichton and rookie Danielle Hunter could provide solid rotational snaps. Hunter is an imposing prospect with length and speed.

“He’s gotten better, and continually with these guys, when we get in the pads, that will be a little bit more of it,” Zimmer said of Hunter. “He has outstanding skills and it’s just how fast he can progress from there. I’ve seen him progress throughout these 13 days we’ve had and he still is a very young guy, he was a junior coming out, but I like a lot of things he does and he’s a great kid.”

Griffen (27), Johnson (30) and Robison (32) are the only players 27 or older that are expected to be regular contributors on the line. But with Floyd (24), Joseph (26), Crichton (23), Hunter (20), Shamar Stephen (24) and Justin Trattou (26), the Vikings have an influx of young and developing talent to help improve the run defense after the pass defense made a big leap in the rankings last year.

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