The Minnesota Vikings defense has exploded onto the scene to start the 2016 season. They have carried the team to a 3-0 record and are showing no indications of slowing down.
Every unit of the defense seems to be playing at a high level, but it starts up front with the defensive line. Everyone has been playing extremely well up front, but there are two young players who seem to be coming into their own this season.
The first is one that everyone has noticed with all the splashy plays he makes week in and week out and that is defensive end Danielle Hunter. He has recorded 13 tackles, three tackles for a loss, three sacks - one for a safety - one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, which he returned for a touchdown, through the first three weeks of the season. What makes it even more impressive is he is still a rotational player, playing in 120 of the 215 defensive snaps the Vikings have had so far this season.
He was drafted in the third round a year ago and many viewed him as more of a project player that would take some time to develop. He had all the physical abilities needed to be a top-tier talent at the defensive end position, but he was still very raw in his fundamentals.
It was clear that Hunter was starting to bring everything together toward the end of the season last year and he has only seemed to be getting better in 2016. Head coach Mike Zimmer even said that he has been surprised with how quickly Hunter has come along.
“Danielle is a, (he’s) got a chance to be a really good football player,” Zimmer said. “Dynamic in really a lot of things, not just in the pass rush. He continues to play a little more freer with his hands.”
The other young defensive lineman that has been making an impact so far this season but maybe hasn’t stood out as much is defensive tackle Shamar Stephen.
Stephen was drafted in the seventh round of the 2014 season and became an immediate part of the defensive tackle rotation. He was forced to miss a majority of the 2015 season, though, after the Vikings placed him on injured reserve with a toe injury during the fifth week of the season. It was a setback to his development, but he has come on strong to start the 2016 season.
“Well, he wasn’t here last year because he was hurt, but fundamentally he is a very good football player,” Zimmer said of his third-year tackle. “He’s become a better pass rusher. He’s not all the way there yet, but he’s become better. I think he feels really comfortable in the things that we ask him to do defensively and he can play two spots.”
As Zimmer mentioned, Stephen has been making improvements in his pass rush, but where he has made the biggest impact so far this season is defending the run. The Vikings defense is allowing 84 rushing yards a game through the first three weeks of the season, which makes them the No. 7-ranked run defense.
It is still early, but that is nice improvement from the 109.2 rushing yards per game they were giving up a year ago.
That success stopping the run has been putting opposing offenses in a lot of unfavorable situations on second and third down, which has allowed the Vikings to get creative with their pass rush. That has led to them not only getting to the quarterbacks for sacks, but also creating a number of turnovers, both things that would not have happened if it weren’t for Stephen and the run defense.
“I think that Shamar Stephen’s made a big impact on that, obviously, along with Linval (Joseph),” Zimmer said about the run defense. “Our ends are playing well and the linebackers have been doing a good job in fits. There’s been some times that the safeties get involved pretty good, too, so I think it’s been a combined effort, but I think if you only said one thing, I would say Shamar Stephen has really solidified that.”
The defensive line as a whole has been playing at a high level through the first three weeks of the season, but the success of these young players is a good sign for Zimmer. It gives him confidence to rotate them into games more often, which means added rest for the veteran players.
Development of young players also points towards sustained success over a long period of time, not just a one- or two-year window.