Ross Kolodziej will enter the season as a backup defensive tackle if everyone stays healthy on the defensive line, but with four years of previous NFL work, he is also one of the Vikings' most experienced defensive linemen, tied with DeQuincy Scott behind Pat Williams' nine years of experience.
Kolodziej has played with the New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals, but he says the Vikings' scheme with defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin is built for the defensive linemen to succeed.
"Here, it's a very basic, simply Tampa-2 – let the guys up front get up field and make plays. I think it's designed to let guys play (free) and not bog them down too much with terminology and different schemes," Kolodziej said. "In Arizona, we ran a million different fronts and different schemes. Blitzes, zone dog, you name it, we had it. (Cardinals defensive coordinator) Clancy Pendergast was a guy who just loved to sit up there and draw and create stuff and come in on a Thursday and be like, ‘Hey guys, what do you think of this?' He was always scheming."
Tomlin is passionate about his defense as well, but he isn't looking to take an effective scheme and make it more complicated. The success of the Tampa-2 defense is in the details and discipline, not how complex or confusing it is.
"Schematically, it's definitely not as complicated or involved," Kolodziej said. "Here, it is definitely more of, ‘Let's play ball.' They're adding on stuff more and more everyday, but it's all about the basics, the fundamentals."
In three preseason games, the defense has bent at times, but has rarely broken. While opponents have actually gained more yards than the Vikings, they haven't scored nearly as much. Minnesota holds a 60-33 scoring advantage.
"It's an equal-opportunity defense. You're here to make plays. Handle your business, but if you handle your business you're going to be in a position to make a play if everybody else is (in position)," Kolodziej said. "In Arizona, it was more of a funnel-type of a scheme, where we're gonna run everybody this way and funnel it back to the strong safety or the weak linebacker. … In this defense, I think it's designed to get everybody in position to make a play."
The result has been an opportunistic defense. While the Vikings have done a good job at protecting the ball, fumbling only three times in three games and throwing just two interceptions, the defense has created far more turnovers.
The Vikings hold an 8-3 advantage in fumbles and 5-2 advantage in interceptions. That decisive turnover advantage likely has a lot to do with the team being 2-1 so far in the preseason.
The defensive line is where it starts, creating pressure on the quarterback before the wide receivers have a chance to break free. The Vikings also hold a 12-7 advantage in sacks. But it hasn't just been the starting defensive line creating the pressure and sacking the quarterback.
Only Ray Edwards, a rookie defensive end, has more than one sack, leaving 11 other players to share the 10 remaining sacks (Eric Taylor and Jayme Mitchell share a sack).
That depth, Kolodziej said, has been evident in practices as well.
"The competition has been fierce. This has been a physical, intense camp. It's been the real deal," he said. "I love it, I love to work. This is what you do, you come to play ball. You want to play against good competition. You don't want to come out against the Sisters of the Poor in practice and then come game day you've got to face some real competition and it's two notches above."
That respect goes both ways, as Kolodziej appears to have won a roster spot backing up Pat and Kevin Williams. He has gained the respect of head coach Brad Childress and seems to be the kind of player Childress usually describes when talking about guys he wants to build a team around.
"(Kolodziej is) tough, hard-nosed, another guy that has a high motor. He's like a top – you can stop him going one way, and he's going to spin back the other way," Childress said. "I thought he did a great job; we played against him last year in the second to last game of the season. Tough, hard-nosed guy, and you better be when you play in that meathouse. They are coming at you from all angles. He shows up every day for work, has great push, and he's relentless. Those are the kind of things I see."
In Arizona, Kolodziej found that the coaches were looking for one move, and eventually offensive linemen figured a way to use that consistency of the defensive linemen to their blocking advantage. The use of the hands to defeat the blocker helps the Vikings' one-gap responsibilities from being overexposed.
He said the way the coaches are teaching players to use their hands on the defensive line is the biggest difference between what he has been doing in Minnesota and what he did in Arizona, where he started 18 of 29 games the last two seasons.
Without an opportunity to start again in Arizona or elsewhere, the Stevens Points, Wis., native decided to return to the Midwest. His meeting with some of the defensive coaches sold him on the move.
"Just meeting with Coach (Karl) Dunbar, meeting with Coach Tomlin, talking to Coach Childress, seeing what the coaches are all about, how they respect their players here, how they run practice – essentially, what is their mission statement, what are they all about as an organization? I just thought it was a great thing to be a part of," Kolodziej said. "Just the vibe I got from speaking to the coaches and the other players, I think it's a great place to play ball."
Kolodziej: Scheme Built for Defensive Linemen
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