PHILADELPHIA – The Vikings had as many defensive ends inactive as the only two they had in uniform for Sunday’s 23-21 win over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
“So what?” said Danielle Hunter. “Got to play ball, man. Suck it up.”
With second-team All-Pro Everson Griffen still dealing with mental health issues and Tashawn Bower out because of a sprained ankle, the Vikings were down to just Hunter and Stephen Weatherly. Rookie defensive tackle Jalyn Holmes played the first nine snaps of his NFL career at end Sunday, but other than that, it was up to Hunter and Weatherly to shoulder almost the entire workload.
The Eagles had 55 offensive plays, not counting penalties. According to Pro Football Focus, Hunter played 55 snaps, while Weatherly played 54.
Both had a pivotal sack. Hunter had one in the red zone to help prevent a touchdown, while Weatherly had the strip sack that broke a 3-3 tie by sending Linval Joseph en route to perhaps the league’s fastest ever 64-yard touchdown by a 329-pound man. Hunter and Khalil Mack of the Bears are the only two players to have a sack in every game this season.
“We’re playing for Everson, we’re playing for each other,” Hunter said. “We fight for each other in here. We had a speech this week from somebody saying in order to be a champion you have to go through a lot of pain. That motivated me a lot. Stephen, too, I think.”
It helps that Weatherly and Hunter are 24 and in great shape. It also helped that the Eagles started with three three-and-outs in their first five possessions, including two straight to open the game, and were being dominated in time of possession, 19:33-10:27, while trailing 17-3 at halftime.
“Those early three-and-outs set the tone for the game,” Weatherly said. “That was more time on the bench resting while our offense was driving the ball.”
No play this season was bigger than Joseph’s fumble return.
“Was it a fumble or an interception?” Weatherly asked reporters after the game.
Told that he did indeed register the second sack and forced fumble of his two-year career, the former seventh-round draft pick erupted with joy.
“Yeah!” he screamed. “Get some! I’m just excited.”
Asked to describe his role in what might eventually be viewed as a season-turning play, Weatherly gave some insight into how the modern pass rusher has to think.
“When I made my move, I knew I had Carson Wentz dead in my sights,” Weatherly said. “I came in, hit him and made sure I didn’t fall on top of him [for a penalty].
“Then,” he added, “I turned around and saw LJ running. It was a happy day. I wanted to go block for him.”
The defensive line also bailed the offense out in the fourth quarter.
Leading 20-14, the offense called an ill-advised backward pass to rookie running back Roc Thomas. He never got a handle on it. The Eagles recovered the ball at the Vikings’ 30 with 10:03 left.
An illegal formation pushed the Eagles back 5 yards. But a neutral zone infraction by Weatherly moved the ball back.
Then Weatherly pushed his side of the pocket so effectively that Wentz was pressured into throwing the ball away. He was called for intentional grounding, pushing the Eagles out of field goal range and forcing them to punt.
“I’m just glad we were able to overcome my neutral zone infraction,” Weatherly said. “I knew if we hold them to no points there, we had a great chance to win.”
The Vikings held on thanks to Dan Bailey’s 52-yard kick on the ensuing possession. Two and a half minutes later, Hunter and Weatherly were heading toward a good night’s rest.
“Obviously, we tried to get [Holmes] in there, but sometimes, guys got to suck it up,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “That’s part of NFL football. Guys get hurt. You suck it up and go play. Do your best. Hunter and Weatherly, they’re good young guys that got to suck it up.”
Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org