MANKATO – Andre Patterson thinks Datone Jones is about to play his ideal position in the NFL for the first time. And the Big Bertha is the tool to help him excel there.
The Big Bertha is a sled Patterson invented, to deliver a sharp reminder of how the Vikings defensive line coach wants his players to move. It’s only been used in the places Patterson has worked. Players hit the front arm of the sled, causing it to swivel, and if they don’t accelerate quickly enough, the back arm whips around like a door about to shut.
“If you don’t bring your back half through quickly, she swings around, and … boom! She’s going to hit you,” Patterson said. “So you have no choice but to clear it fast. What I always like to do is, break it down from the bottom up. I’m going to put you in the position so you can feel it, and then we add another step to it, another step to it, until finally, you’re coming out of your stance and doing the whole thing. So we work from the finish back, so they can feel it.”
Will Patterson’s exacting approach help Jones — whom the Packers tried first as a defensive end, then as an outside linebacker — turn into an effective defensive tackle? The 2013 first-round pick is betting on it.
Jones signed a one-year, $3.75 million deal with the Vikings in March, acting on what he had heard about how Patterson’s meticulous approach got the best out of unfinished prospects. During Jones’ free agency visit, Patterson told him that if he had been in the draft this year, the Vikings line coach would have scouted him as a three-technique tackle. Jones liked the idea enough to take a chance on it.
“I could just tell [how good they were,] based on watching their group and how they worked,” Jones said. “What really sold me was the leader of the group, Coach ’Dre. That’s one thing he preaches from start to finish: You can beat guys off pure talent, but once you get your fundamentals correct, it mixes with that pure talent to [help you] become a great player.”
Now, the 27-year-old will try a career reboot at a position where the Vikings could use some help. Sharrif Floyd — selected three picks before Jones in 2013 — remains on the non-football injury list because of a nerve issue in his right knee that put his future in doubt. The Vikings head into their first preseason game with a group of players vying for time at Floyd’s position, and while Tom Johnson was listed ahead of Jones on the Vikings’ first depth chart, both players should have a role.
“Tom’s ahead of him,” coach Mike Zimmer said Monday. “Datone, he got better the last two days. We’ll see. We need four of them either way [across the two tackle spots].”
After shedding weight to play outside linebacker last year in Green Bay, Jones was easily able to bulk back up to 295 pounds in preparation for his move inside with the Vikings. By the time Jones arrived for his visit in Minnesota, Patterson had been through Jones’ film enough to analyze why he had posted only nine sacks in four years with the Packers, despite his ability to generate consistent pressure.
That’s where Big Bertha came in. “We always talk about the back half of your body,” Patterson said. “If you’re an offensive lineman, and I clear you with the front part of my body, I’ve got to get the back half of my body through quick, because the offensive lineman is going to react. He has the ability to get the front half cleared quick, but his back half doesn’t come through as fast.
“That’s the thing we’ve been working on real hard, since Day 1, and in the [practice] on Saturday night, you saw him back there [in the backfield]. So those things are starting to come.”
Since Zimmer and Patterson arrived in Minnesota, the Vikings took Everson Griffen from a rotational pass rusher to a two-time Pro Bowl player. Johnson, a former CFLer who struggled to find a fit in New Orleans, has 14 sacks the past three years. And Danielle Hunter, who slipped to the third round because of raw pass-rushing technique that belied his athleticism, tied for third in the league in sacks a year ago.
Jones is here because he wants to become Patterson’s next success story.
“There’s just so many different things that, before, would have made me a much better player,” Jones said. “I’m just happy I can actually learn from him, because my performance is definitely going to change.”