When Olympic cross-country skiing gold medalist Jessie Diggins visited the Vikings’ practice facility Friday, she gave a speech to the team that centered on the theme Vikings coaches had been preaching to players all week: the importance of finishing.
Third-year defensive end Stephen Weatherly was paying rapt attention, knowing he was set for a busy day of work Sunday as one of the Vikings’ only two healthy defensive ends heading to Philadelphia. Weatherly and Danielle Hunter had been working on their conditioning all week in preparation for the game, but Diggins’ message drove the point home.
“She said she doesn’t know much about football; she definitely doesn’t know what it’s like to go out there and try to maul someone,” Weatherly said. “But one thing she does know is the preparation, and what it’s like when you’re in your moment, for your sport, and there’s that crucial time, and you’ve given everything you have up to that point — but you need more. Everyone has felt that, at every position, when we feel like we’ve given it all, but now that crucial point is coming up. What will you do?”
Before this season, Weatherly had few chances to showcase himself on an NFL field. But by playing 54 of the Vikings’ 59 defensive snaps Sunday, the 2016 seventh-round pick delivered the biggest moment of his career.
Weatherly’s second career sack started with an outside rush on right tackle Lane Johnson, before beating him to the inside with an up-and-under move once he got Johnson to shift his weight. Weatherly swatted the ball out of Carson Wentz’s hand, and into the waiting arms of Linval Joseph, who rumbled 64 yards for a touchdown.
While Everson Griffen remains away from the team while dealing with mental health issues, the Vikings have turned to Weatherly, installing him as their starting left end while moving Danielle Hunter to Griffen’s normal spot on the right side.
He had played just 91 career snaps on defense before this season, working mainly on special teams while studying under Vikings veterans and defensive line coach Andre Patterson. He had primarily been known to fans for his unique background off the field: Weatherly plays nine musical instruments, was the captain of his high school robotics team, spent time in Germany in high school, and has a grandmother, Dianna Johnson, who studied at MIT and Harvard.
Now that he is getting his chance to start, he is adding some NFL highlights to his eclectic upbringing.
“He’s just going out there and just playing,” Hunter said. “He’s not thinking. I talk to him before the game and just say, ‘Bro, just go out there and do you. Don’t worry about what nobody else says about you. It’s on you now. Just go do you.’ ”
Though Weatherly had a modest 11 ½ sacks in college, shifting from a rotational defensive end to a 3-4 linebacker at Vanderbilt, he fit the profile of the lanky, athletic pass rusher the Vikings have coveted under coach Mike Zimmer and Patterson. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound end ran a 4.61 40-yard dash and bench pressed 225 pounds 23 times at the NFL combine, pairing his intelligence with an athletic ability that drew the Vikings to him.
Now that he is getting his chance to play, Zimmer said, he is showcasing the technical improvements he has made in his time with the Vikings.
“When he first came here in the first little bit, he was a guy that would stop his feet on the rush [and] kind of measure,” Zimmer said. “Now he’s just rushing and using his athletic abilities. If the guy oversets he comes inside, if he sets too tight, he works the outside edge. I think he’s just getting a better feel of it, but the number one thing is not stopping his feet.”
Weatherly didn’t have much time to stop Sunday, and he could be in a starting role for the foreseeable future, as the Vikings wait to see whether Griffen will be able to return to them.
In the meantime, as Weatherly gets his opportunity, he is making sure to run with it.
“It’s easy when you go through a game, and you’re not having pressures or you’re not as effective as you want to be, to abandon your go-to moves and try to improvise something,” Weatherly said. “Watching guys like ‘D’ [Hunter] and [Griffen] use their moves, and you see it pay off late in games, it’s really just sticking to what I’ve been practicing all week.”