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Sack-happy Vikings D-line looks to join ranks of 'Purple People Eaters'

Upon Further Review / The morning after every Vikings game, after a few hours of sleep and maybe an early flight back to Minneapolis, Star Tribune beat writer Matt Vensel will empty out his notebook and share a few opinions after getting a chance to gather his thoughts. It’s sort of like a Minnesota-centric version of the Monday Morning QB — except it’s a few thousand words and one haiku shorter.

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Everson Griffen busted out his signature “Sack Daddy” celebration after a trio of sacks. Brian Robison set the line and hauled in a big one. Danielle Hunter performed a relatively subdued safety dance. Linval Joseph swung for the fences.

In Sunday’s 22-10 statement win over the Panthers, it seemed as if every member of the Vikings defensive line got to show off his sack dance.

In all, the Vikings sacked Cam Newton, the quarterback who is built like a defensive end and runs as fast as many wide receivers, eight times, and Joseph’s second-quarter takedown knocked the reigning league MVP out of the game temporarily. The defensive line, the best in the NFC North with eyes set on being the best in the NFL, was responsible for six of the sacks.

“We have such confidence in this D-line. We feel like we can be one of the best ever to wear purple,” Robison said after the upset. “That’s not taking away from the guys who wore purple before us, but we hold ourselves to that standard. We hold ourselves to a higher standard than most people.”

Hunter got the first sack, when the Vikings really needed a spark. They were trailing by 10 points late in the first quarter when he put “the Blind Side,” Panthers left tackle Michael Oher, on his backside then engulfed Newton in the end zone for a momentum-changing safety. Sunday was the third straight game with a sack for Hunter, who is still just 21.

A quarter later, Joseph tripped up Newton behind the line, leaving him temporarily hobbled, though Newton might have been hamming it up.

And then Griffen took over the game. Griffen, who was battling an illness during the game, got his first sack late in the second quarter and added two more after halftime. He leads the team with four sacks this season.

“Trying to block him is an all-day affair,” coach Mike Zimmer quipped.

With Griffen and Hunter and Robison flying in off the edges and Joseph pushing the pocket from the middle, the Vikings have racked up 15 sacks so far this season, leading the league with one game left to be played in Week 3. All but two of those sacks have come from defensive linemen.

The Vikings are presently on pace to record 80 sacks — fun with small sample sizes! — and shatter the Bears’ all-time record of 72 in a season, set by their legendary 1984 defense. That might be a little ambitious, but they certainly will be in the hunt for their first team sack title since 2011.

And that brings us back to Robison’s comment about the possibility of this defensive line possibly becoming one of the best in Vikings history. If the guys up front keep playing like they did on Sunday, they definitely could be mentioned in the conversation with “the Purple People Eaters” and “the Williams Wall.” Maybe themselves a clever nickname, too.

Back in the 1960s, the Vikings used first-round picks to acquire future Hall-of-Fame defensive linemen Alan Page and Carl Eller and teamed them up with Pro Bowlers Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen. The Williams Wall group of a decade ago was constructed with first-round pick Kevin Williams, free-agent addition Pat Williams and defensive end Jared Allen, who cost the Vikings a first-rounder and two other picks in a trade.

The current group, which runs eight deep on the occasion that defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd is healthy, has been assembled a little differently.

Their top three defensive ends are all middle-round picks. Robison, the old guy in the group, is still playing pretty good ball at 33. Griffen, the wild one whose voice was raspy in the postgame locker room because of all that shouting, is a late-blooming former fourth-round pick who has become one of the NFL’s best all-around defensive ends. Hunter, long and athletic, was picked in the third round last year and had six sacks as a rookie.

Floyd was a first-round pick and Joseph a big free-agent pickup two years ago. But fellow defensive tackle Tom Johnson was a career journeyman before finally clicking under Zimmer’s tutelage and Shamar Stephen was a seventh-round pick in 2014 who gets everything he can out of his talent.

Their powers combined, those defensive linemen can kick a lot of butt. Just ask Newton, Oher and the rest of the overmatched Panthers O-line.

“I feel like if we play together, we can do anything we want to do,” said Joseph, perhaps the best nose tackle in the NFL. “This is a good start.”

FIVE SNAP COUNT OBSERVATIONS

1. In the first game without star running back Adrian Peterson, Matt Asiata got the start but Jerick McKinnon ended up playing 65 percent of the snaps, out-snapping him 35-19. Ronnie Hillman, the new guy, did not play, perhaps because the Vikings figured they could use fullback Zach Line, who rushed for 4,185 yards at SMU, as a ball-carrier in a pinch.

2. On a hot day in Charlotte, safety Andrew Sendejo was the only Vikings defender to play all 77 snaps on that side of the ball (he played 11 snaps on special teams, too). Fifteen Vikings defenders played at least 27 snaps and 20 of them in all played as Zimmer tried to keep his guys fresh.

3. After missing the first two games with a knee injury, cornerback Xavier Rhodes started Sunday and led all Vikings cornerbacks with 57 snaps played on defense. Zimmer rotated his three outside corners, though, so Terence Newman and Trae Waynes played 53 and 39 snaps, respectively. Nickelback Captain Munnerlyn played 50 before cramping up while rookie Mackensie Alexander played nine and veteran Marcus Sherels got four.

4. Jeremiah Sirles played 35 snaps at left guard after Alex Boone was carted to the locker room in the second quarter. Boone played 19 snaps. T.J. Clemmings played every snap in his first career game at left tackle.

5. Wideout Jarius Wright made his 2016 debut but played just one snap.

FOUR QUOTES FROM THE LOCKER ROOM

1. “I think our team believes. No one else believes, but I think our team believes.” — Zimmer playing the nobody-believes-in-us card yet again, but win a couple more games like this and Zimmer will have to put it away

2. “It was fun. I think they thought it was going to be a trick play when I went in there. Every time I was out there, they were yelling, ‘84 is in, 84 is in.’ But I just did my job. If you need me on kickoffs, punts, punt return, whatever. It doesn’t matter. I just want to help this team win.” — wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson on his debut as a special-teams gunner

3. “We probably saw a little more two-high than we have on first and second down in the past. When Adrian is in the game you can almost guarantee we are going to get a loaded box, seven or eight guys up front. Whereas today, I think Carolina early in the game did a good job of mixing coverage. They played some two-high, some single safety and really kept us off balance early in the game.” — quarterback Sam Bradford on how the Panthers treated the Vikings without Peterson sidelined

4. “We weren’t worried about him. [The focus] was Kelvin Benjamin. … I don’t think he is that good, No. 17.” — cornerback Captain Munnerlyn tells us how he really feels about Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess

THREE TAKEAWAYS FROM THE GAME

1. Tight end Kyle Rudolph is finally performing like a top tight end again. Ever since Rudolph caught nine touchdown passes and made the Pro Bowl in his second season, fans and media — and the Vikings, too — have been waiting for another big season from the big tight end. Instead, Rudolph had a couple of injury-riddled seasons in 2013 and 2014 and had to take on more of a blocking role last season with the Vikings starting a rookie, T.J. Clemmings, at right tackle. So far this season, Rudolph has played a ton because MyCole Pruitt, the team’s other pass-catching tight end, has been out with a knee injury. And they have been featuring him in their passing game. Rudolph has touchdowns in consecutive games and he is second to only wide receiver Stefon Diggs in receptions (14) and receiving yards (166). If he keeps it up, he might just make it back to the Pro Bowl.

2. The quick passing came can help mitigate a struggling Vikings offensive line. Even though the Vikings are one of five undefeated teams, they are getting it done despite the guys up front not having come together yet. In their defense, injuries have been an issue. Four days after left tackle Matt Kalil was put on IR, Boone, the left guard, was knocked out of the game with a hip injury of his own. His replacement, Sirles, may have actually played better in relief. Or it just looked that way because the Vikings smartly changed up their offensive approach at halftime, often putting Bradford in the shotgun and asking him to get rid of the ball quickly. After getting pressured on 38.5% of his first-half dropbacks, according to ESPN, Bradford was pressured on only 11.8 of them in the second half. Until this group actually gels, perhaps those quick-hitters are the way to go.

3. Punter Jeff Locke has been a difference-maker the past two games. Locke, now in his fourth NFL season, has been criticized in this space before due to his inconsistency booting the ball. But his performance the past couple of weeks suggests that the Vikings might have known what they were doing by sticking with Locke. After a shaky debut in Tennessee, eight of his 14 punts against the Packers and Panthers were downed inside the 20-yard line. In the second quarter Sunday, he boomed one inside the 10 to back up the Panthers, who ended up taking a safety. That play, along with the Marcus Sherels punt return for a TD, helped spark a Vikings comeback. Locke now has a net punting average of 40.5, on pace for the best average of his career. But that number doesn’t even do him justice given how often he has been called upon to punt near midfield.

TWO QUESTIONS FOR ZIMMER TODAY

1. What will it take for top pick Laquon Treadwell, who was a healthy scratch Sunday and has played just two snaps so far, to get onto the field? After all, Charles Johnson has just three catches for 20 yards in 2016.

2. What is up with Boone, who was slated to get an MRI this morning?

ONE THING TO THINK ABOUT THIS WEEK

1. The Vikings have had mixed results against top NFL wide receivers the past couple of weeks. Jordy Nelson of the Packers caught five passes for 73 yards and a touchdown while also drawing a 40-yard pass interference penalty that set up a score in Week 2. On Sunday, they shut out Benjamin, who had three touchdown catches in his first two games. Up next is Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants, arguably the NFL’s best wideout not named Antonio Brown. While Beckham has yet to find the end zone this season, he had seven catches for 121 yards on Sunday in his duel with Redskins cornerback Josh Norman. Beckham was suspended when the Giants came to TCF Bank Stadium last season, so this will be Zimmer’s first exposure to him. It will be interesting to see what the Vikings do to limit the damage.

Rhodes will play for Vikings against the Panthers, Treadwell will not

Cornerback Xavier Rhodes, who missed the first two games of the season with a knee injury, will make his 2016 debut today against the Panthers and their oversized wideouts, Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess.

But interestingly, the Vikings have still listed Trae Waynes and Terence Newman as their two starting cornerbacks in their base defense. So we will see if that is a ruse or if Rhodes has a limited role this afternoon.

The Vikings have also listed Matt Asiata, not Jerick McKinnon, as their starting running back even though coach Mike Zimmer indicated this week that McKinnon would be the lead back with Adrian Peterson now on injured reserve. Still, the expectation is that McKinnon gets more touches.

Newcomer Ronnie Hillman, who was signed Wednesday, is not active.

Neither is top draft pick Laquon Treadwell, who is a healthy scratch after playing just two snaps in his two games. Jarius Wright is active instead.

Also inactive for today’s game are tight end MyCole Pruitt, center Nick Easton, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Kentrell Brothers.

T.J. Clemmings starts at left tackle in place of Matt Kalil, who is also on IR.

Sam Bradford, who starred on the ice and hardwood before deciding to become an NFL QB, will make his second start under center. He threw for 286 yards and two touchdowns in the Week 2 win over the Packers.

Final, 9/25 1 2 3 4 F
Minnesota 3-0 2 6 8 6 22
Carolina 1-2 10 0 0 0 10

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