In a team game, it’s all about the group, but individual players making big plays is what distinguishes the average or good teams from the great one.
In the case of the Minnesota Vikings, their defense has been oppressive to opposing quarterbacks this season – shutting them down for long stretches of games – and it has been a group effort across the board. Yet, several players have shined when they have the opportunity to make plays and few have been more dominant than defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Joseph leads the defensive line with 23 tackles and has a sack in each of the Vikings’ three games this season. Despite playing in 12 games last year, he was voted by players to the NFL’s Top 100 list in 2015 and his dominating performance early this season has the league buzzing about him even more.
“I’m just picking up where I left off,” Joseph said. “Things are just falling into place for me right now.”
For a franchise steeped in defensive history, from the Purple People Eaters on down, Joseph believes the Vikings have something special going this season and that they can be dominating.
Having taken down the last two league MVPs (Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton) and a Heisman Trophy winner (Marcus Mariota) in the first three games, the Vikings have laid the foundation for a big season and Joseph sees no reason why the Vikings can’t be as dominant as they have been to close out last season and start this year.
“We can be as good as we want to be,” Joseph said. “Right now, we’re just taking one game at a time. If we just keep playing at high level, the sky’s the limit.”
Joseph has always been a physical player. He’s earned the nickname “Big Goon” from some of his defensive linemates because of the pure power that he brings. He was that way with the Giants, who Joseph said he has little connection with anymore since becoming a Viking.
He won a Super Bowl with the Giants by doing many of the same things he’s doing now with the Vikings and helped make the players around him better.
Linebacker Chad Greenway credits Joseph’s pure power and the requirement of double teams as a reason why the Vikings have been able to stuff both the passing and running games this season. While the rest of the NFL is taking notice of Joseph’s accomplishment, his teammates have seen it all along.
“I think he’s doing how we thought,” Greenway said. “Honestly, he’s playing at a level we thought he was capable of and has played at before. Nobody in here is surprised. He’s a complete monster in the middle and you have to block him with multiple people. That’s so great for us linebackers playing the run game, but also in the pass game. He’s just so strong in one-on-one situations, it’s hard to block him.”
Part of the success the Vikings defense has enjoyed has been a byproduct of the Mike Zimmer philosophy of staying true to individual assignments for the good of the group. For example, Zimmer said Monday that Tom Johnson had one of the best games of any defensive lineman, yet he didn’t record any of the eight sacks the team had despite nailing Newton a half dozen times during the game.
Joseph feeds off that philosophy. Last week it was Everson Griffen who came away with three sacks. This week? Who knows?
“With this team, you just have to be ready,” Joseph said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Next week, Tom might get three sacks. You never know how it goes. You rush together and, when it’s your time to make your play and it’s coming your way, you need to make your plays.”
It isn’t just luck that the Vikings have improved up front so dramatically since Zimmer arrived. The team has used the draft and free agency to build the depth needed to compete at a high level and the players are drinking the Kool Aid because the results of what is being taught is playing out on the field.
“I feel like Zimmer did a good job bringing guys in that get how he coaches and how he preaches,” Joseph said. “You buy into that. It’s all about the team, not about you.”
There is already whispering that this team could have the greatest Vikings defense in 40 years and that there may be a Super Bowl in their future. The players aren’t getting ahead of themselves – there are still 13 more games in the regular season and, they believe, the playoffs to follow. There are a lot of land mines on that road.
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But Joseph knows what the journey to a championship requires and how it gets done. They all tend to share one key ingredient and he sees the Vikings as having that.
“Every team that went to the Super Bowl or won the Super Bowl has been about team, not about me,” Joseph said. “That’s the reason why they make it that far.”