The Vikings saw enough potential in Hunter to draft him in third round last year and his pass-rushing ability has been honed into NFL readiness that resulted in his first two-sack game on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals and Carson Palmer.
“Coach always talks to me. He says, ‘After the first sack just tune in more and focus more because after that first sack you probably get all relaxed’ so I don’t have to worry about it,” Hunter said. “You just have to tune in more and keep rushing.”
There were plenty of opportunities for Hunter to rush Palmer on Sunday, especially in the second half of the Vikings’ 30-24 win. Palmer attempted 38 passes as he tried to summon a Cardinals comeback.
Hunter played a big part in stifling it. On Arizona’s second-to-last drive, Hunter’s second-down sack was a big reason for a three-and-out-series, showing how far he has come in a little over a year.
A defensive end known for his speed, this time Hunter simply bull-rushed his way back to Palmer while pushing the right tackle D.J. Humphries and collapsing the pocket.
“I think when you look at it, he came in here and everybody talked about how raw he was and things like that,” starting defensive end Brian Robison said. “When you look at it from the time he got here in OTAs you could tell that he was a quick learner. That’s just what it’s been ever since then. He just started to understand the game more and more, understand situations and things like that. It’s helped him. You see it on tape every day that he’s starting to understand things a little bit more.”
Hunter’s second sack of the game, and his team-leading seventh of the season, couldn’t have come at a better time. On Arizona’s final desperation drive, the Vikings thought they had the Cardinals stopped with an incomplete fourth-down pass, but defensive tackle Tom Johnson was flagged for roughing the passer, giving Palmer another set of downs.
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After Palmer was flushed from the pocket and picked up another first down at his own 30-yard line, the Cardinals looked to have some life and a chance to go the remaining 70 yards in the final minute of the game. But, facing fourth-and-6, Hunter ran a tackle-end stunt and with coverage in the back end solid, Palmer continued to look for his best option until Hunter forced the veteran quarterback to take his vision of the receivers and run backwards for preservation. When Hunter dropped Palmer for a 15-yard loss on fourth down, the Vikings’ victory was preserved.
“It’s all part of the game plan in what Coach (Mike Zimmer) makes us do,” Hunter said. “All I know is if we’re up by a lot at the end of the game, they’re going to have to pass it, so that’s when the pass rush starts to come.”
The Vikings’ defensive ends have combined for 18 sacks this season, the second-highest position total in the NFL. They are the only team in the NFL to have three defensive ends with five or more sacks each – Hunter with seven, Everson Griffen with six and Robison with five after he got the four-sack game started with one in the third quarter Sunday.
“It wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for my teammates. We rush together as a front,” Hunter said. “We planned our game and we ended up getting sacks.”
The Vikings figured it might be a good game to get their pass rush back on track. While some teams have approached the Vikings’ defensive line speed by keeping in extra blockers, the Cardinals like to spread defenses out with multiple receivers and often with an empty backfield.
That philosophy opened up opportunities for Minnesota’s speed rushers.
“It was definitely a good game because we watched on film and they don’t leave guys in that much so that was definitely a plus for us from the pass rush,” Hunter said.
Turns out it was the most productive sack game of Hunter’s young career. Despite being in his second NFL season, he is still the second-youngest player on the team behind rookie receiver Laquon Treadwell.
After turning 22 in October, Hunter ranks second in sacks in the NFL among players under the age of 24, a half a sack behind Seattle’s Frank Clark.
“Just keep doing the things that Coach Zim and Coach Andre (Patterson) tell me to do,” Hunter said, “using my speed, long arms, all my tangibles that I got from God.”