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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Vikings’ D-line depth and ‘ability to become anything’ proving critical for a shorthanded defense

By Andrew Krammer

MINNEAPOLIS — Mike Wallace, Stefon Diggs and other members of the Vikings’ offense stared intently into a television hanging on the wall of the TCF Bank Stadium home locker room, hanging on the outcome of Giants-Panthers.

Just feet away, Sharrif Floyd was still hung up on the game that just ended, swarmed by a gaggle of reporters. Pointing down the line of defensive lockers — divided on the right side of the locker room — Floyd handed out his own verbal game ball to each defender who helped the Vikings (9-5) to a decisive 38-17 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon.

After what was arguably the Vikings’ most complete game of the season between offense and defense, the questions posed at a dominant defensive line took a little bit more explaining than an offense that has started to hit its stride with Teddy Bridgewater.

“Just because we don’t have Harrison Smith doesn’t mean [Anthony Harris] can’t play ball, just because we don’t have Linval Joseph doesn’t mean I can’t play [freaking] nose. I can,” Floyd said. “I trust that I’m going to do my job. I’m going to trust Harris is going to do his job and trust everybody who has to step up is going to do their job, it makes my job easier.”

Once again, the Vikings were without their three kings on defense as safety Harrison Smith, linebacker Anthony Barr and nose tackle Linval Joseph were ruled out before kickoff. Which meant, once again, they’d be starting three rookies between undrafted safety Anthony Harris and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Edmond Robinson.

Coach Mike Zimmer knew he would need his defensive line, the most talented, deepest and highest-paid unit on his side of the football, to shine with many of his stars wearing street clothes.

“We’ve had a lot of guys banged up and beat up in the back end and linebackers and so it’s important that that group [played well] – and I’ve always said I want the offensive and defensive line to be the mentality of this organization, this football team,” Zimmer said. “I thought we played a lot better today. They’re probably tired of hearing me all week long but I’m proud of them today.”

From the first snap, the defensive line answered Zimmer’s call.

Whether indirectly or directly, the D-line disrupted Chicago’s rhythm on offense throughout the day. When Matt Forte shot out of the gate with a 35-yard run, he was called back because center Hroniss Grasu got flagged for holding Floyd. Two plays later, Tom Johnson sacked Jay Cutler on third down to force the first of what would be consecutive three-and-out series to open a long day for the Bears.

Without Joseph, who was the Vikings’ most disruptive D-lineman until injuring his foot in the Nov. 29 win at Atlanta, they were forced to flex their depth again. They’ve missed games from three of their four starters this year, including Floyd, Joseph and end Everson Griffen. That has allowed the younger pieces, such as rookie Danielle Hunter, to gain valuable experience slowly throughout the season. Hunter came up huge for Griffen, who is still limited by an injured shoulder. Backup Justin Trattou was also called into action less than a week after he was re-signed, released only because the Vikings needed extra depth in the secondary.

Johnson, whose career at age 31 has been resurrected in Minnesota, made his sixth start of the season as he piles onto his already career-high playing time. With Floyd settling in at nose tackle, and Brian Robison playing some of his best football at age 32, this galvanized defensive line erupted against the Bears (5-9) to the tune of four sacks, two pass deflections, a forced fumble and an interception.

Joseph, who remained mum on his foot injury and recovery, said his teammates proved something without him today.

“Right now we’re playing good ball. Right now, I feel like, fricken, we’re a defense to be reckoned with,” Joseph said. “[Sharrif] is the second-best D-tackle on this team and he’s stepping up and doing the job. He’s doing the job and that’s all you can ask of the guy. When he went down, I had to go to [his three-technique spot], you know what I mean? It’s just great to see guys stepping up, guys coming in and doing their job.”

Linebacker Chad Greenway is enjoying his own vintage season as the only non-defensive lineman to land a sack on Sunday. The defensive line’s versatility and “ability to kind of become anything” stood out to Greenway as a reason for why the Vikings can plug gaps without a big presence in Joseph.

When Floyd went down for three weeks earlier in the season, Joseph bounced between both defensive tackle spots. Without Joseph the last two weeks, Floyd has done the same. During the entire season, Robison has been able to transition inside at defensive tackle on third downs, allowing Zimmer to give some much-needed rest to his few defensive tackles who are healthy.

“I just think we can rush from every angle,”Greenway said. “And their ability to kind of become anything. To bring Danielle off the edge, he’s super quick. I think we’re getting better running games. A lot of things that will serve us better down the road.

“Really, I think our defensive line saved us in some cases today. That’s what happens. Sometimes the rush wins and sometimes the coverage wins.”

Robison didn’t need a ‘game,’ or a stunt or twist with a teammate, to beat Bears left tackle Kyle Long around the edge for what Greenway called “the play of the game.” With a 17-7 lead in hand, the Vikings were set to receive the second-half kickoff before the Bears busted out a surprise onside kick to take possession at midfield.

Three plays into the drive, Robison swatted Long’s arms down and beat him with a speed rush around the edge. Robison extended his right arm to swat the ball out of Cutler’s hand, and his natural fall led him right to the football for the recovery.

“It almost just laid there for me like, ‘Here I am,’” Robison said.

It was that kind of a day for the Vikings’ defensive line.

Trattou, who was active for just his third game of the season, made a heads-up play when he recognized a screen in the fourth quarter and dropped back. He just happened to be back pedaling into Matt Forte when Cutler, being pressured by Hunter off left tackle, tossed the screen pass off his back foot and into Trattou’s arms for his second pick of the season.

“You see a guy like Trat come in there, really hasn’t seen a lot of playing time this year and is making splash plays for us,” Robison said. “I think that really speaks volumes about our room.”

The dominant display brought up an obvious inquiry — is this the Vikings’ deepest defensive line in years? Robison fielded that question as perhaps the most qualified to answer having been with the franchise since the ‘Williams Wall’ was collapsing opponents in 2007.

“I guess you could make an argument that it is,” Robison said. “We’ve had some really good defensive lines here, back when we had Jared [Allen], Kevin and Pat [Williams], Ray [Edwards]. Some of those guys, and now with us here. I think you could definitely make an argument for that.”

The post Vikings’ D-line depth and ‘ability to become anything’ proving critical for a shorthanded defense appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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