They may not be Pat and Kevin of the “Williams Wall,” two defensive tackles that shut down running games a decade ago for the Vikings.
But defensive tackle Shamar Stephen’s return to Minnesota has coaches envisioning a similar impact when he and nose tackle Linval Joseph form a 638-pound barricade up front this season.
“It’s a linebacker’s dream,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks, who has led the team in tackles four times.
Stephen, 28, is coach Mike Zimmer’s answer to losing Sheldon Richardson in free agency to the Browns. Stephen, a 2014 seventh-round pick by the Vikings, became the team’s priority in free agency in March when his one-year contract expired in Seattle. Before Richardson’s signature dried in Cleveland, Stephen returned to the Vikings on a three-year, $12.45 million contract.
“Like I never left,” said Stephen, who spent the 2014-17 seasons in Minnesota. “Coming back here was a great opportunity. I felt at home. The defensive line I’m around, I grew up with, so it’s an easy transition for me.”
He returned to practice this week after starting training camp on the non-football injury list. The Vikings are “being smart” with him and Joseph, according to defensive line coach Andre Patterson, as Joseph recovers from offseason shoulder surgery. They may be sidelined for Friday’s preseason opener in New Orleans, as the Sept. 8 season opener vs. Atlanta remains the priority.
While Stephen steps into the starting job, he won’t play the same role as Richardson. Coaches plan to lean on Stephen’s strengths as a run stopper, much as they did during the magical 2017 season when the Vikings’ run defense allowed just 83.6 yards per game (second in the NFL) and 3.7 yards per run (fifth).
“He’s going to solidify some of the run in the middle there,” Zimmer said. “First- and second-down runs, play-action passes — he’ll be in there quite a bit.”
In 2017, Stephen was a situational run stopper, playing nearly 40 % of the snaps. He’ll play even more this season, but likely not much on third downs. He’s expected to “eat” blocks on early downs, which can lower the difficulty level for linebackers behind him.
“Sheldon did a nice job for us, but he’s a different style of player. He’s more of a quick, penetrating-type guy,” Patterson said. “So, now the backers have to fend for themselves more, because one of the [offensive] linemen are going to get off the line, get to the second level and block them. But when you got Shamar and LJ in there together, they eat up four guys. Now those backers have room to go make plays.”
But how will the Vikings replace Richardson’s disruptive pass rush? His 47 quarterback pressures ranked 14th among all NFL interior defenders last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the second most by a Vikings defensive tackle in the Zimmer era.
Defensive end Stephen Weatherly has been used as an interior pass rusher during camp. Young talent such as Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa also will get opportunities as situational pass rushers this preseason.
“That’s why we got other guys I’m looking at,” Patterson said. “We’ll find out after these four preseason games what’s the best four combination to put out there on passing downs.”
A great run defense can force offenses into long third downs, easing the pass rush. That’s why the Vikings viewed Stephen as the ideal “Plan B” at defensive tackle, where he’s impressed coaches with his work ethic and intellect since he was a 2014 rookie out of the University of Connecticut.
Reading offensive line splits and backfield alignments help Stephen make educated guesses about where the ball is headed before it’s snapped. Those natural talents — standing 6-5 and 309 pounds — also certainly help, especially next to a 329-pound wrecking ball named Linval Joseph.
Kendricks could only smile when thinking about the space they can create.
“You have to account for those guys; otherwise they’re going to make the play,” Kendricks said. “It’s kind of a good thing for me — a great thing. I can’t complain at all.”