Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Justin Trattou loves a system where he can have more picks than tackles

Minnesota Vikings defensive end Justin Trattou played in only five games in 2015 due to injury, but he may be as good an example of playing sound defense in a Mike Zimmer system as anyone. As a part-time player on the D-line, only Terence Newman had more interceptions. He's preparing to be a bigger X factor in 2016.

When it comes to the composition of an NFL team, not everybody can be a frontline star. There are only 11 players on the field at any given time. If a player asked to perform spot duty, he needs to make the most of every chance.

Few people exemplified that for the Minnesota Vikings in 2015 as much as defensive end Justin Trattou. A part-time defender and special teams player, Trattou’s chances to shine were limited. But to say he made the most of it would be understating the case.

He only had one defensive tackle in the five games he played – he missed eight games due to an ankle injury and was cut and re-signed in December. But, when given the chance to make big plays, he did – finishing tied for second on the team with two interceptions.

His improvement has been seen more on the practice field than the game-day field, but Trattou is confident he can earn more playing time this season. His offseason workout regimen has helped make him a more instinctive player and has him in better football shape than he has ever been in his career.

The workout regimen has remained similar, but the improvements within the system has been the biggest difference.

“It’s been pretty much the same routine,” Trattou said. “I went back to Jersey and worked out at Freak Strength with my trainer Mike (Guadango). We just get better every year and learn from every previous year. From my rookie year until now, my offseason is about 10 times more productive. I feel better already and I’m looking forward to keep building through to training camp.”

Like many of his teammates, Trattou is drinking the Kool-Aid that head coach Mike Zimmer has been serving up to his defense. It wasn’t an easy system to learn initially, but once the light went on – individually and collectively – the improvement in the Minnesota defense was clearly visible.

As is often the case, the X’s and O’s are important, but having a full grasp of Zimmer’s concepts and gaining a comfort level with it has made the biggest difference for Vikings defenders.

“When (Zimmer) first got here, it was more about learning his system and how he likes things done,” Trattou said. “Now we just go there and work because we already know what he’s looking for from us. I can only speak for the D-line, but from Day 1 when he arrived to now has been night and day. We know what we have to do and try to get better as opposed to learning what to do.”  The improvement has been steady and significant, but what separates good teams from great teams is when they can perform at a high level with the ultimate consistency. Personnel changes due to injuries during a season, but the concepts remain the same, whether it is Everson Griffen and Brian Robison lining up at the defensive end spots or 2015 reserves like Trattou and Danielle Hunter.

The Vikings defensive front was oppressive at times last season and played some of its best ball down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs when a high level of play was needed most.

Despite the momentum the Vikings built last year as the season went on, the reset button has been hit. The plan is to pick up where they left off, but one of the Zimmer mantras is that you’re only as good as the current film says you are. The Vikings are close to being one of those teams that gets the respect from the rest of the NFL that 2015 opponents can attest to, but they have to prove it.

“No matter what, you have to start from scratch every year,” Trattou said. “We were in a groove last year, but that was last year. We need to get that groove back, but once we do, we want to build on that and continue to try to be the best D-line in the league.”

The best way to prove that is to go out and show it week in, week out. It’s what the great teams do, yet the way to achieve that status is to keep doing what you do best. In the Zimmer defense, it’s about continuing to believe in the wisdom his system imparts.  In the Zimmer defense, it’s all about all 11 men doing their assignment on a given play. On some plays, all that means is holding your ground. On other plays, it means five guys funneling a play your way and you’re expected to do your assignment properly and get the credit.

For a guy who played snaps few and far between in the big scheme of things, Trattou made two interceptions – something that rarely happens for defensive ends, much less backup defensive ends.

As long as you are doing your assignment, good things will happen. Trattou made the most of his opportunities last year. He’s hoping that his work ethic and stepping up when he’s been given the chance will open up more opportunities. Even then, his success is based on all 11 guys on the field buying into the Zimmer scheme that asks them to lock down a portion of the field for the greater good.

“Whether it’s making tackles, sacks or interceptions, our D-line has been focused on making big plays that can change a game,” Trattou said. “Everybody knows his role and, as long as we are technically sound, we’re all ready when the plays come our way,” Trattou said. “This is the type of defense that you don’t have to go out of your way to make plays. If you do your job and play your technique, plays will come to you.”

By that logic, if things go as Trattou hopes, he will have five or six interceptions this year. Even if that doesn’t happen, he still has two more than Chris Cook in the Vikings history books.


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