Henry Thomas takes great pride in defensive line play, especially the defensive tackles, and he remains connected to the Minnesota Vikings.
The nose tackle spent the first eight years of his career, from 1987-1994, with the Vikings, part of an excellent defensive line that helped terrorize and intimidate opposing quarterbacks in the NFC Central. Although his position is connected strongly to run stuffers, he knows a thing a two about rushing the passer from the interior of the line, proudly proclaiming his standing as having the most sacks all-time among pure nose tackles.
One player in particular – Linval Joseph – caught Thomas’ eye when he visited his former team for a spring practice before playing golf.
“We have a group of great tackles here – a history of great tackles here in Minnesota – and he can be right there in them,” Thomas said of Joseph. “When I watch him play, I’ve seen him do it.”
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Joseph is suddenly changing the perception of him being just a big run-stuffing nose tackle. Perhaps that’s because he is starting to believe he can be much more, as Thomas believes.
“Number 98, outstanding year last year. What I’d like to see him do is trust his pass-rushing abilities,” Thomas said in June. “I need him to trust his pass rush and continue to do it. He’s football smart.”
Joseph downplays the notion that he is doing anything differently, saying that sack opportunities have just happened to be in front of him more often recently, but how else do you explain the suddenly surge in sacks?
Last year, Joseph had only a half a sack and he’s never had more than four in a season. In fact, in his first six seasons in the NFL he registered only 12½ sacks.
It’s never been a big part of his repertoire. It is now.
“Linval, No. 1, he’s a big, strong, physical guy, but he’s also a really good athlete. And he’s a great person,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “This kid, he does a lot of the dirty that a lot of people wouldn’t want to do. A lot of guys would rather get sacks and stuff like that and he’s happy just playing the run and letting other guys do their deal.”
It would be easy for Joseph to settle into the “run stuffer” label placed on him, and he has plenty of value in that role alone. As the Vikings bullishly preach on defense, they have to “earn the right to rush the passer” by stopping teams on first and second down. So far, they’ve done that very well this season.
They have averaged allowing only 3.44 yards per rush on first down with 6-10 yards to go and 1.12 yards on second down with 3-5 yards to go.
Since Joseph joined the Vikings as one of the first free-agent signings when the Zimmer clock in Minnesota started ticking in 2014, teammates have raved about his strength. Zimmer has seen it, too.
“I know he is extremely strong. He’s very powerful, he can run and, like I say, he’s a great kid. He loves to do the dirty work,” Zimmer said.
Some of it is freakish natural strength. But it is another part dedication.
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“This kid works now. The whole offseason he was here working every day,” Zimmer said. “There wasn’t one time when I walked in the weight room that he wasn’t on the bike or the elliptical or something. He works his rear end off.”
Joseph immediately upgraded the size and strength in the middle of the defense. Some teammates have called him the most important defender in a defense stuffed full of impressive athletes and playmakers.
What he gave Zimmer was the opportunity to get to the right down and distances on third down to fully exploit his array of pass-rushing packages. He can only get there, however, if the Vikings are stout enough on first and second down.
“I remember one time (Bill Parcells) came up to me when we were in Dallas and he said, ‘Have you ever had a team that could just overpower people?’ Because he always wanted big guys. He said, ‘Well, you will have,’” Zimmer said.
Joseph is the critical cog in that machine.
Thomas believes that defensive line coach Andre Patterson has also been integral in shaping, honing and accentuating the talent that has been assembled on the defensive line. Joseph called Patterson the best coach he has ever had.
Patterson was one of the first assistants brought in when Zimmer made changes in the defensive coaching staff in 2014. Thomas actually spent time with Patterson in 1997 when Thomas was playing for the Patriots and Patterson was a defensive assistant.
“We learned a lot from each other,” Thomas said of Patterson, who came to the Vikings as their defensive line coach in 1997-98 and returned in 2014. “I love that he’s teaching technique. You look in the league today and everybody’s teaching bull rushing and they don’t teach technique, and when you learn technique, the thing that you do as a defensive lineman, when you’re tired in the game it’s at that point you revert to the bull rush. Because he’s teaching so much technique, you’re not the only one tired. That guy is tired over there. He’s hoping you bull rush him, and when he’s sitting down waiting for the bull rush and you use your technique on him, good things happen for the team and for yourself.”
With their depth at the position, the Vikings have also been able to rotate their defensive linemen. Through three games, Joseph has played in only 129 of the Vikings’ 215 defensive snaps.
Although he’s a starter and has generally been considered a first- and second-down run stuffer, he’s also proving he can rush the passer.
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Zimmer said some of that is Joseph trusting his abilities once it’s evident it is a passing play. But the more he pushes the pocket backwards, the better the whole defensive line looks.
Who knows? It might even provide him more opportunities to expand beyond his label.
“The general rule is the job description is still the same. We try use the abilities of guys,” Zimmer said, “and he has a lot of ability.”null