There seems to be a theme going through the Minnesota Vikings locker room this week as they prepare to take on the St. Louis Rams. The Vikings offensive line prides itself on being tough guys, but they have a load of respect for the Rams and their blue-chip defensive line, which includes five former first-round draft picks.
Fans of the NFL widely view the Denver Broncos defense as the best in the league in 2015, and the rankings back that. The Vikings went up against Denver earlier this season – the Broncos handed the Vikings their last loss due in large part to a stifling defense – and gained a begrudging respect for what the Broncos were able to do against them.
But, to three offensive linemen that Viking Update spoke to Wednesday, all of them had the same party line – the defensive front in St. Louis is every bit as good as the one they saw in Denver.
“They’ve got a very good defense, a good defense overall, they have great personnel and this is going to be our toughest challenge to date,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “They’re right up there with Denver. I’m not going to pick whose better, but they’ve got great personnel.”
That personnel includes five first-round draft picks – homegrown talents in defensive ends Chris Long (drafted in 2008) and Robert Quinn (2011) and defensive tackles Aaron Donald (2014) and Michael Brockers (2012) and free agent signee Nick Fairley, a 2011 first-round pick of the Detroit Lions.
As the players have grown together as a group with the addition of game-changers like Donald and Quinn, they have become a cohesive unit made even stronger by adding Fairley to the rotation.
Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil is no stranger to the Rams. He’s gone up against Quinn before and knows what he and his defensive linemates bring to the table. Like Fusco, he wasn’t willing to put the Rams behind the Broncos in terms of depth or firepower.
“They might be better than Denver from what we’ve seen,” Kalil said. “I’ve played against them a couple of times and they seem to get better every year. They’ve got a tremendous pass rush. They do a lot of things well because they’ve got a great front four. We’re going to have our hands full with these guys.”
In the middle of it all is Donald, a second-year player who trails only Quinn in sacks – Donald has 4½ sacks to Quinn’s five. He typically lines up at left tackle, but will switch over to right tackle on some plays to create a mismatch. Viewed as a bit undersized coming out of college, Donald has been a dominant presence.
How dominant? When Fusco watches tape, he sees a defensive tackle who was part of his nightmares – former Lion Ndamukong Suh.
“He’s got some similarities to Suh,” Fusco said. “He’s physical. He has good get-off the ball. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s strong and makes up for it with his speed.”
For the most part, Donald will likely be lining up opposite right guard Mike Harris, who will likely be counting on center Joe Berger to help him out. Donald commands double teams and can beat them too often.
Harris knows he will be punching the time clock at noon Sunday and it will be a long day’s work for him. Like his offensive line co-workers, the level of respect he has for the Rams defense in general and Donald in particular is impressive.
“I think they’re as good or better than Denver,” Harris said. “As a group total, the Rams are very athletic on film. Their D-tackle Donald, he’s going to be hard to handle on Sunday, but I’m looking forward to the matchup. It’s going to be a good test game for the line.”
The Rams will blitz from time to time, but the sign of a great defense is that they can create pass-rush pressure just sending their front four and allowing their back seven to either shoot gaps or drop back in protection coverage, making a quarterback’s life miserable.
The defensive line alone has accounted for 18 of the team’s 26 sacks and they often do it with a simplistic four-man rush. They will bring pressure on blitzes, but few things are more comforting for a coach than to know the front four can consistently get the job done of getting the quarterback off his spot and force the issue on pass plays.
“They’re second in the league in sacks, so you know they’re going to be bringing it all day,” Kalil said. “They’re a top-notch defense and they keep teams out of their rhythm. They find ways to control the tempo. We’re going to have to capitalize on the opportunities we get and make sure that we’re as physical or more physical than they are.”
The Vikings know they’re going up against an all-star team of blue-chip players up front. It was done by design, as the Rams have used first-round picks in three of the last five years to bolster a unit to the point that, even when a player comes out as part of a rotation, new blue chippers replace them – on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary.
“They’ve got first-round, second-round talent all along the defense,” Fusco said. “It doesn’t take away from our game. We’re going to listen to what the coaches are telling us game plan-wise and execute.”
As the Vikings look to impose their will as they have with so many other teams, dominating up front to open holes to give the ball to Adrian Peterson 20-30 times a game, they know they’re going to be facing one of their stiffest tests of the season.
If you believe what the players themselves say, there may be no greater challenge than the one the Rams are going to pose as the Vikings look to extend their current seven-game home winning streak.
“We just ground and pound,” Harris said. “It all starts up front and it opens up things in the run game and downfield for passing plays. It’s going to be a battle, but we’re ready for it.”