For much of the 2015 season, Minnesota Vikings coaches and players have been touting the success of defensive tackle Linval Joseph. He has been a dominating force in the middle of the defensive line and was in the spotlight when he tied a career high with 10 tackles and a half-sack against the St. Louis Rams.
On Wednesday, the NFL announced that Joseph was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Rams, becoming just the fourth Vikings defensive tackle to win the honor – joining Keith Millard, John Randle and Kevin Williams. It was the first time since 2004 that a Vikings defensive tackle won the award and Joseph credited studying film on how the Rams had been so successful with running back Todd Gurley.
Joseph came into the game knowing that he was either going to be the center of the action or chasing plays all day long in which tackles would be few and far between. Fortunately for him, he got the former and not the latter.
“I really just was doing my job,” Joseph said. “All week long, just watching (Rams running back Todd Gurley on tape) to see how he runs and how everything unfolds. It was going to be a good game or a bad game and everything just rolled out the right way.”
His first season with the Vikings got off to a slow start after he was the innocent bystander victim of a shooting in a Minneapolis nightclub in which a bullet hit him in the calf. It slowed his acclimation to the new defense head coach Mike Zimmer had installed.
This year has seemed like a fresh start for Joseph and his teammates. He has seen the progress that has been made and has left the bad memories of the start of his Vikings career behind him.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Joseph said. “I’m just glad to be healthy and glad to have the second year under my belt. I know the playbook now. Right now, everything is just coming to me easier and, the team, everyone is pulling together. That’s all you can ask for.”
Joseph was in a defensive line room meeting Wednesday morning when the word came down that he had won the award. If you had asked his teammates or coaches, they would have said it was about time he got singled out for achievement because he has been playing at a Pro Bowl level all season.
But Joseph took the honor with humility, saying that his other 10 teammates were just as deserving as him because when they’re all doing their jobs plays get funneled to waiting teammates who will make plays if they stick to their technique.
“I’m just humble and happy to get the award,” Joseph said. “I would just give it to all my teammates because without them I never would have got this award because we have to play together. By us playing together, it gave me opportunities to make plays, and without them I never would have got this award.”
The key element of the Zimmer defense is to have all 11 players working as one, what the players refer to as “small ball.” If each player executes his assignment on each play, offenses can be stymied more times than not. There isn’t any room for freelancing or getting out of position. When the Vikings are hitting on all cylinders, Zimmer’s defense can be lethal. He has the players buying into it and the success has followed.
“Our job on this defense right now is everybody do their job – small ball,” Joseph said. “The plays will come to you. That’s what we’re doing. We all love Zimmer. He’s a good guy. He coaches small ball – everybody do their job. That’s what we’re doing. Right now, everybody is really in tune, in sync and we just want to keep winning.”
The respect and admiration that the players have shown to Zimmer has been mutual. More and more, the players are buying into Zimmer’s vision of coaching defense and they’re seeing the tangible results of that buy-in on the field.
At first, it was complicated and, at times, confusing to players whose instincts were often at odds with their assignments on given plays. They have to give in to the system and, as the Vikings have found ways to limit opponents to 20 points or fewer in seven of their eight games (and 23 in the other), they’ve come to understand that Zimmer has a higher plane of thinking than the rest of them and they have embraced what he is teaching.
“It feels good to know that he’s one of us,” Joseph said. “He’s got my back and I’ve got his back. Right now we want to just win for him and everybody’s going to be a family.”
Zimmer acknowledged that Joseph has stood out on the 2015 Vikings defense, but, when he spoke to the team this morning as it began preparations for the Oakland Raiders Sunday, he stressed that the team concept is the overriding factor, but that outstanding individual performances at all three levels of the defense will help the team as a whole enjoy more success.
“I think any time you have success those things happen,” Zimmer said. “I talked to them today about, ‘We’re at the halfway point of the season, here’s what we have to do to get better.’ I’m trying to continue to push them to understand how you go to one of the elite teams, the things we have to do to improve and how each one of them can help us to become a better football team, individually. It’s nice for the guys and all of that, but it just means guys are playing good, that’s all.”
Joseph has become a more vocal leader in games, practices and in the locker room in his second season with the Vikings. It took him a little longer than he anticipated to get to the level of play he’s currently at, but he wants to lead by example and help everyone around him get better.
“It’s more of a comfort level,” Joseph said. “I just want everyone to be great and I want everybody to do their job. If I can help, I’m going to try to help. That’s just the way I am. I’m just bringing that out more this year because we’re all one heart. We all have to stick together. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to help this team.”