In the second year of Mike Zimmer’s defense, a lot of players are making progress and taking their game to a higher level from the time Zimmer showed up with a scheme and a dream.
Perhaps nobody has made more progress than defensive tackle Linval Joseph. In his first year with the Vikings, he had several obstacles to face, ranging from learning a new defense to being the innocent victim of a random club shooting during the preseason.
A year later, Joseph is having arguably the best season of career. He has been a dominant force in the middle of the defense and is making big plays on a regular basis. But, much like the multiple looks and disguises that are integral to the Zimmer defense, Joseph isn’t looking at himself as a breakout player. He sees it much more from the production of the group as a whole.
“As a team, we’re playing at a high level and we’re playing together,” Joseph said. “We’re making plays. Last week we played about as well as we have after the first quarter. We ended up with seven sacks and did just about everything right. Now we’re looking at building from that and just continuing what we’ve started to show we can do.”
The key to Joseph’s success has been has buy-in with being a spoke in the wheel – admittedly, a load-bearing spoke. Over the offseason, into training camp, the preseason and now the regular season, Joseph has seen the defense coming together as a unit.
Everyone knows their role and how it fits into the bigger picture. Getting tackles or sacks isn’t the individual goal. It’s making sure that tackles or sacks happen and each playing his role to do it, whether it’s having others open up opportunities for you or you funneling a play into the protection for someone else to make the big play. Joseph did that on at least one of the Vikings’ seven sacks on Sunday.
“We’re coming together as a team,” Joseph said. “That’s the first thing about the NFL. Once you have a team that comes together and plays for one another, it takes you a long way. Right now, I think that’s what we have. Everybody’s making plays and setting each other up. It’s just a big family here.”
Nobody has been a bigger fan of Joseph’s improvement than Zimmer himself. Asked what he thinks Joseph done better this season than last year, Zimmer wasn’t shy about being effusive with praise.
“Everything,” Zimmer said. “I don’t want to get too gushy here, but I’ve had a couple of really good nose tackles in my career. This guy may be the best. He’s good. He’s really good. He cares, he’s tough, he’s physical, he’s got some pass rush to him when he wants to go. He plays blocks, he doesn’t get defeated in one-on-one blocks. Every time we went back out on the field on defense in the second half (against Detroit) he’d say, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal, coach.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir!’”
Joseph was humbled by the accolades from his head coach, but he credits the time that he has spent in the system for being as responsible for his strong 2015 season as anything he has done individually. Getting praise from the man who holds his playing time is always good to have, but he’s more focused on the defense playing well.
“I really do appreciate it,” Joseph said. “I feel the second year in the system and learning the new defense, I’m just comfortable. Being comfortable opens up to being more athletic and make more plays and make the plays that count when it’s time to make them.”
With four wins in their last five games and a defense that is getting closer to hitting on all cylinders, Joseph sees this as just the start of something big for the Vikings this season. Nobody is getting complacent or satisfied, but one big difference from their early struggles last season, the Vikings are having good time and, in the NFL, is doesn’t get much better than that.
“Right now, everything is fun,” Joseph said. “When you win, it’s fun. Just keep this atmosphere going, keep winning and have everybody keep doing their job.”