While doing some reporting for my feature on Datone Jones that ran in Wednesday’s paper, I had an interesting conversation with defensive line coach Andre Patterson about his process for teaching linemen the ways he wants them to play.
Patterson, a longtime confidant of coach Mike Zimmer, oversees one of the league’s best defensive lines. His thinking has helped form a central tenet of Zimmer’s defensive approach over their years together, and on a staff with a number of assistants who are insightful, engaging interviews, Patterson stands out.
I thought I’d take a few minutes this morning to offer a brief primer on the Vikings’ approach to defensive line play, and what they’re trying to teach a player like Jones as he seeks to reboot his career.
You’ve probably heard Zimmer talk about how Vikings defensive linemen play the run on their way to the quarterback; in other words, the Vikings aren’t teaching their linemen to cruise around blockers as quickly as possible in an effort to get into the quarterback. The styles of players like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams are long gone. Instead, you’ll hear Zimmer and Patterson stressing the importance of playing blocks first, taking shorter routes to the QB and using strength to collapse offensive lines, rather than simply breezing past them and leaving linebackers exposed.
“Most coaches try to tell you, ‘Use loops. Flip your hips. Try to use the space to your advantage; try to get wide to make your offensive lineman come out and get you,'” defensive tackle Tom Johnson said in this feature I did last December when I was at ESPN. “[Patterson] actually teaches the exact opposite of what you’ve been told to do a lot — which, in film, if you watch us do it, it looks a lot quicker. You eliminate those [extra] steps. He tells us to go attack the man where you want to be at instead of trying to go around him.”
Patterson believes efficiency of movement and sound technique are vital to giving defensive lines the advantage back over offensive lines, which generally have to drill fundamentals and create cohesion to make up for their athletic deficit against defensive lines.
So how does this work in practicality for a player like Jones, who only had nine sacks in four years after the Packers took him in the first round? For one, he’s back up around 295 pounds, after shedding weight to play linebacker for the Packers. Jones has always impressed scouts and coaches with his pure strength, and in the Vikings’ scheme, that trait can be put to good use if it’s applied properly.
He had played five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 scheme at UCLA, which put him in some similar situations to what he’ll do as a three-technique tackle in Minnesota. That, Patterson said, created a template for his work with Jones.
“It wasn’t like taking a guy that had no clue at all,” Patterson said. “That part of it was good, because you saw him do it at UCLA. It was just him feeling comfortable with, ‘My pad level has to be lower, my footwork has to be right and my hand placement has to be right, because things happen so fast down there.’ I think it’s really good for him to be able to watch Tom Johnson, Shamar [Stephen], L.J. [Linval Joseph] on tape, and see how fast they react to stuff.”
Patterson talked in the story about how Jones needs to be better at getting his bottom half through an offensive linemen. The Vikings drill that with Big Bertha, the swiveling sled Patterson designed to help players internalize how quickly they need to clear a blocker after initial engagement.
“When you hit it, it’s going to swivel that way. When you go, that back arm is coming back quick,” Patterson said. “So if you go real slow, it’s going to get you.”
The Vikings certainly aren’t expecting Jones to be a finished product by Thursday’s preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills; in fact, Patterson said he anticipates, and even welcomes, mistakes as Jones tries to rewire his brain.
“I’m excited for these four preseason games, because now he gets the chance to do it in game action,” Patterson said. “And in the process of doing it right is making a mistake. That’s what I tell him all the time: You’ve got to make mistakes trying to do it the way we’re coaching you to do it, so you figure it out. He’s going to get in the game. He’s going to make some mistakes. I know that. But the key is, when we come back and we watch the tape, and we go play Seattle the next week, he doesn’t make the same mistake.”
From a financial standpoint, the Jones move was a low-risk gamble for the Vikings on an athletic player who didn’t live up to expectations in Green Bay, but might be a better fit for where the Vikings will use him. From a football standpoint, though, the Vikings need Jones to work out this year, particularly if Sharrif Floyd isn’t able to return. Their run defense lagged at times last year as their tackle depth got stretched, and they could certainly use another strong interior pass rusher to replace some of what they’d lose without Floyd.
Their gamble, though, was in some ways on a coach who’s delivered some impressive results in the past, turning fringe players like Johnson into key contributors and raw prospects like Hunter into pass-rushing terrors. Patterson, for his part, believes in his approach and what it can do to turn up another surprise for the Vikings’ defensive line.
“People around the league know that we’ve taken some guys that people might not have agreed [with] when we did it,” Patterson said. “And then, when it’s all over and done with, that player is looked at in a different light. Players talk about those things. When he came in, he already knew my reputation. So for me, when we sat down the first time, it was just sitting down and telling him what I saw in him as a player. I was able to sit down and tell him how I saw him as a player, and how I felt I could take advantage of the gifts he has as a player.”