The big man – and perhaps the strongest man on the Minnesota Vikings – keeps talking about “small ball.”
Linval Joseph’s mantra of “small ball” is his way of saying everyone on the defense is doing their job, but perhaps Joseph is epitomizing that more effectively than anyone else on the No. 1-ranked defense in points allowed.
“It’s been great. He’s been very, very physical. He’s starting to get a lot more double teams now obviously because of the way he plays,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s doing so many good things and he’s such a great kid, and really kind of embodies what we’re trying to get this football team to be like.”
Joseph has been so good that he now leads all NFL defensive linemen with 43 tackles, getting 18 over the last two games. In many cases, the nose tackle on a defense is simply responsible for clogging the middle running lanes and occupying one or two offensive linemen to allow the linebackers to make plays.
But, despite being listed at 6-foot-4 and 329 pounds, Joseph is now displaying the athleticism to get off those blocks and the guile to recognize plays quickly.
Last year started slowly for him. He missed most of the preseason after being the innocent victim in a nightclub shooting, taking a bullet to the leg. He returned to play in all 16 regular-season games, but it took him time to get used to a new defense in his first season with the Vikings after coming to Minnesota as a free agent from the New York Giants.
“He’s more comfortable in the defense this year. When he was at New York, they play kind of a totally different way,” defensive end Brian Robison said. “I think to him it’s being a little bit more familiar, understanding what the guys around him do and just the way he’s playing with his natural ability now instead of sitting back and doing things. He’s attacking guys, he’s attacking double teams and he’s splitting double teams and making plays.
“And even times when he isn’t making plays, he has a hand in it. There’s a lot of times where a ball (carrier) may be trying to run back side to the shade 5 and he’s cutting it off and making him cut back to other guys to make the plays. That’s just been the big key for us this year having him in the middle and just being aggressive.”
Nose tackles are often the anonymous mammoths in the middle of a defensive line that no one gives much attention. Joseph certainly doesn’t seek it, usually deflecting singular praise to the whole of the defense.
He is the humble huge man that is making a large difference in the defense.
“He does an awful lot of dirty work and doesn’t necessarily get the recognition - I know he’s getting more now. He doesn’t really care about getting recognition, I don’t believe,” Zimmer said. “He just wants to win and help his buddies to play good and keep linebackers free and if he falls into a sack here or there, he’s excited about it.”
Joseph might not get 1 percent of the attention of running back Adrian Peterson on offense, at least by the NFL-viewing public at large, but opposing offensive linemen and their coaches are well aware of his effort and effectiveness.
“That guy’s a load for everybody. He’s been making centers around the league look pretty bad,” Raiders offensive lineman Tony Bergstrom said after facing him. “He’s a good player. He is a load and you have to give him every bit of credit that you can. He went out and he played pretty well (on Sunday). He was a test; that was definitely the test this week. We had him pegged as probably their best guy up front, and he was a great test for us out there.”
The last time the Vikings defense was even close to this effective was when Pat Williams and Kevin Williams were the defensive tackles forming the Williams Wall and they had a string of three consecutive years anchoring the NFL’s best run defense.
So how does Joseph compare to Pat Williams?
“I think they’re similar in how dominant they are at the nose tackle position,” said Robison, who has play alongside both. “I love Pat to death, but Linval, the things he does athletically for his size is ridiculous. Just his overall strength, he’s probably one of the strongest human beings I’ve been around. He’s just that type of presence in the middle.”
And he’s a big reason for the Vikings’ defensive success in 2015.