Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Shamar Stephen surprised a lot of people during his rookie season in 2014 by having a fairly big role in the defense after being drafted in the seventh round. He was then on track to further increase his role in 2015 after having a good preseason, but that was not how things ended up playing out.
Stephen suffered a toe injury that placed him on injured reserve, just five games into the season. It was hard for him to miss all that time last season, but now he is back, healthy and looking to make up for it.
“It was difficult (to sit out), but at the same time I’m here for my teammates,” Stephen began. “I’m here just to try and do my job. I wasn’t here last year and I’m coming back here just to do my job and help them out, try to win games.”
Stephen’s “job” seems to always be changing along the interior of the Vikings defensive line. Some days he is taking snaps with the first team and other days it’s with the second team. One day he will be working as the three-technique and the next he will be working as the nose tackle. Sometimes he’ll even work at both spots in the same practice.
It really amounts to him doing whatever the coaches ask of him.
The third-year defensive tackle has been working on getting his fundamentals down and improving his technique this offseason. He’s been working on taking better angles, his hand placement, footwork and different types of pass rushes. Head coach Mike Zimmer said he has seen Stephen improve his pass rush quite a bit this offseason, but his strength remains stopping the run.
That improvement is what has partially led to Stephen receiving more reps as the three-technique, the defensive tackle position that focuses on rushing the quarterback more, but it’s not the only reason. Zimmer also wants to be able to rest some of the players he feels they played a little too much during last year’s preseason.
“Last year, we probably played Tom Johnson too many plays in the preseason,” Zimmer said. “So, we’re trying to take some plays off of him. Sharrif (Floyd) was out, so we got (Stephen) in there for more first- and second-down situations, but the more that he plays the more that he develops his pass-rushing ability, as well.”
Stephen’s improved performance in the running game and continued improvement against the run is not something that just happened overnight. He is often working hard with a number of different coaches, or even his teammates, whenever he is on the sideline.
He is simply putting in the time necessary to improve his game and now the results of that hard work are starting to show. Like any humble player, though, he defers the reasons for his success to his coaches and teammates.
“We all do a lot of work with it. Coach (Andre Patterson) is very good. He is sound with everything he teaches us to do, and on top of that we have good veteran guys who try to help us out and try to give us little nuances about our pass rush and try to help us out,” Stephen explained. “Then you still have to work on it on your own. So I think it’s just a collective thing where we just always work on our pass rush and work on the little things to improve our game.”
The Vikings have their third preseason game Sunday and Stephen should expect to see plenty of snaps during it. Starting nose guard Linval Joseph is an important piece of the defense and may not see as many snaps as other players and Floyd is still working his way back from a knee injury.
It’s another opportunity for Stephen to show how far he has come and prove to the coaching staff that he deserves an increased role in the defense.