“The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement.” — Bruce Lee
That Bruce Lee quote, inscribed on the Pro Bowl jersey Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen presented to Shawn Myszka last week, has been a north star for Griffen’s work with his movement coach over the past four years. It flowed through everything they did in daily two-hour sessions before this season, as they sought to master the fluid movement and sensory awareness Lee made famous with his style of Jeet Kune Do.
And on Sunday, Griffen will channel Bruce Lee as he tries to take down the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
Griffen, off to his finest start with six sacks in five games, knows he will face no greater test than the NFL’s version of a martial arts master. Rodgers combines a powerful arm and quick release with sublime movement and a preternatural sense of his surroundings into perhaps the NFL’s most virtuosic style of quarterbacking.
“Everything starts with [No.] 12,” Griffen said of the Packers. “His reaction time, his ability to scramble, that just gives you another dimension. He’s like a running back. You’ve got to treat him like one, kind of, because he can get out of the pocket and run. If you let them get the running game going, and the play-action, and then have Aaron, they’re like three-dimensional. You can’t give them three dimensions.”
The only player to sack Rodgers more in his career than Griffen is Jared Allen. The only quarterback Griffen has sacked more than Rodgers is Matthew Stafford. On Sunday, with first place in the NFC North at stake, they will meet as two rivals in full command of their abilities.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Rodgers said. “I remember watching him as a gunner on the punt team. I said, ‘Who’s this humongous guy as the gunner?’… He’s extremely strong. He has a great spin move. He can stab, he can [go] speed to power, he can [go] power to rip, he can walk a guy back into your lap. He can do it all.”
Griffen, 29, is one of 10 NFL players who works with Myszka, the Minneapolis-based “Movement Miyagi” who also works with Xavier Rhodes and Anthony Barr (Adrian Peterson was a former student). Myszka’s work with Griffen has centered on flexibility and efficiency of movement, while teaching him to pick up on subtle cues like a quarterback’s voice inflection, or the angle of a ballcarrier’s hips, that others might miss.
Myszka preaches “repetition without repetition” to mimic the controlled chaos of a game, where no two plays look the same and problems must be solved at full speed. It’s dovetailed with the tutelage of Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson, who’s built one of the league’s best pass-rushing groups by preaching efficiency of movement.
The combination has made Griffen more explosive off the ball, more fluid around the edge, more adaptable in the run game and more prolific as a player. He ranked fifth in the NFL with 30 ½ sacks from 2014-16, and this year, after a summer of work with Myszka to prepare for a role on both the right and left sides of the Vikings’ line, he’s tied for third.
It all came together
His most recent sack — a strip of Mitch Trubisky on Monday night — brought all of Griffen’s work to bear.
Watching center Cody Whitehair’s hands and paying careful attention to Trubisky’s voice inflection, Griffen exploded off the ball precisely as Whitehair snapped it, forcing Bears left tackle Charles Leno into a compromised spot before Whitehair’s shotgun snap even reached Trubisky’s hands — and before anyone else on the Vikings defense was in motion.
“The lower-level movers, they’re waiting to see someone else’s movement,” Myszka said. “Someone else’s movement is usually too late. We’re trying to pick up subtleties.”
Griffen exploded off the line with his hips high — “not unlike a track start” for a sprinter, Myszka said — and banked around Leno like an IndyCar taking a corner, allowing him to maintain speed as he cleared the tackle.
“It’s maybe as clean and crisp of a trusting of where his center of gravity has to be [as you’ll find],” Myszka said. “What we’ve tried to do is make it Everson’s version of what Von Miller does in Denver.”
Griffen’s speed at the top of the rush often creates “blow-bys,” where his momentum carries him past the quarterback, but he sliced toward Trubisky with his gaze trained on the ball, not the rookie’s body. As he turned the corner, he leapt to swat the ball out of Trubisky’s hands.
“He performs like a half-broad jump out of that stance,” Myszka said. “It really came down to him trusting what he was doing at the top of the rush. Those plays are there to be made against any quarterback: Aaron Rodgers included.”
‘I need Aaron Rodgers’
That most defenders don’t make those plays against Rodgers, though, is a testament to his own movement mastery. Knocked in the pre-draft process for a lack of athleticism (Rodgers’ famed title belt celebration is often reserved for plays he made with his feet), he has become the NFL’s deadliest quarterback outside the pocket with an approach that sounds awfully similar to what Myszka is preaching to Griffen.
“You just have to be aware of where they’re at, and try and use their momentum against them,” Rodgers said. “Pocket presence is about a feeling, when you’ve got to hang in there, when you’ve got to get out; when you get out, what kind of issue you’re dealing with.”
On his 18-yard scramble on the Packers’ final drive in Dallas last Sunday, which set up a game-winning touchdown pass, Rodgers evaded lunging attempts from Benson Mayowa and David Irving, keeping his eyes downfield and his arm cocked to throw until he passed the line of scrimmage.
“In the last drive, [it was] trying to get my knees up,” Rodgers said. “When I was outside the pocket there, I felt like guys were diving at them. The last thing you want is for somebody to clip a heel and take you down. It just depends where you are on the field and who’s coming after you.”
Mayowa’s lunge on the play, Myszka said, “is a guess” — something he wants his players to avoid.
“If that’s [Griffen] in that situation, it’s one more quick stab step and then explosion,” he said, as Young MC’s “Bust a Move” played over the loudspeakers at Eden Prairie’s Vault Fitness. “You’ve closed the space. You’ve changed his timing.”
Myszka enlisted former Minnesota State Mankato running back Blake Freese to work with Griffen and imitate Rodgers’ movements, so the defensive end could avoid a repeat of the play Rodgers made against him last Christmas Eve, when low hips and a lethargic first step left Griffen chasing Rodgers, only able to point at the quarterback as he slipped by to his left for a 6-yard score.
“We failed the test,” Myszka said. “There’s been plenty of tests that he’s aced. This is one we need back.”
All through their recent sessions, Myszka said, Griffen has mumbled to himself, “I need Aaron Rodgers.”
There are no guarantees against the two-time NFL MVP. But if Griffen does it right on Sunday — if he can mimic Bruce Lee on the field — he’ll have Rodgers right where he wants him.