Inside pressure: Upgraded interior push could create a nastier Vikings defense

Zimmer sought and bought pressure up the middle.

Interior Pass Rushers

Edge Pass Rushers

DT

DE

Interior Pass Rushers

DT

Edge Pass Rushers

DE

Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sat with the NFL’s reigning No. 1 defense in February and wondered, “Do we need to do something different, even though they’re converting one third down per game?” Zimmer’s honest offseason assessment led to the eventual answer of yes, get more pressure on the quarterback — especially up the middle.

Enter DT Sheldon Richardson, a free-agent prize signed this offseason to a one-year, $8 million contract lined with another $3 million worth of incentives. That’s a lofty investment for a defense that was as close to perfect as any in the league last season.

The Vikings believe Richardson, 27, can make them better; Richardson, a former first-round pick who was shipped from the Jets to the Seahawks a year ago, feels the same way — especially about respected Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson.

“I do feel like he can take me to the next level,” Richardson said of Patterson. “Redefine my hands and make those pressures turn into sacks.”

Sacks were harder to come by for the Vikings defense as last season progressed. The production was nearly cut in half, from averaging 2.7 sacks in the first 11 games to 1.4 in the final seven games of the season and playoffs.

Look deeper and you’ll find just 6½ of the Vikings’ 40 sacks came from defensive tackles. That’s not ideal for Zimmer’s scheme, which was in place when Geno Atkins became a quarterback’s nightmare as a tackle for four seasons in Cincinnati. 

Top interior threat key for NFL’s best pass-rushing teams

Pass rushers coming off the edge to take down QBs are the most celebrated, but teams featuring interior pass-rushers applying pressure often wreak the most havoc. That’s where the Vikings’ new addition, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, comes in. Richardson’s interior push could create a nastier Vikings’ defense straight up the middle.

Interior
Edge

Players

Player Team Pressures
1. Aaron Donald LAR 91
2. Von Miller DEN 83
3. Khalil Mack OAK 79
4. Demarcus Lawrence DAL 79
5. Terrell Suggs BAL 75
6. Chandler Jones ARI 76
7. Melvin Ingram III LAC 76
8. Joey Bosa LAC 75
9. Cameron Jordan NOL 74
10. Geno Atkins CIN 70
11. Cameron Heyward PIT 62
12. Jurrell Casey TEN 53
13. DeForest Buckner SFO 52
14. Malik Jackson JAX 51
15. Kawaan Short CAR 51
16. Fletcher Cox PHI 51

Teams

Team Sacks
1. PIT 56
2. JAX 55
3. CAR 50
4. LAR 48
5. LAC 43
6. TEN 43
7. NOL 42
8. BAL 41
9. CIN 41
10. DAL 38
11. PHI 38
12. ARI 47
13. DEN 33
14. OAK 31
15. SFO 30

The Vikings have little doubt Richardson can provide an upgrade up the middle.

“He’s a guy that can go in there and bring pressure when we need him to,” defensive end Danielle Hunter said. “It’s going to be a plus for the defensive line and defense, because it’s a part of our defense for the three-tech [defensive tackle] to bring pressure.”

Richardson was a top-20 interior pass rusher for the Seahawks last season with 36 total pressures (hurries, hits and sacks), according to Pro Football Focus. But he had just one sack, meaning he lacked “the vanity and the numbers,” Richardson said, that often accompany a highly coveted free agent.

He could become one of 2019’s top free agents if he reaches the ceiling the Vikings expect. Along the way, Richardson also would make life easier for the Vikings’ top two pass rushers off the edge in Hunter and Everson Griffen.

“It’s all about whenever you bring pressure to a quarterback’s feet, it stops him from stepping into his throws,” Hunter said. “It makes him hold the ball longer. It gives us time to go around the edge and beat our guys, make moves and just get to the quarterback.”

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