Replacing Linval Joseph will be easier said than done, but new Vikings nose tackle Michael Pierce started off on the right foot last week when describing his style of play that in its best moments during his four-year Ravens tenure mirrored Joseph, a two-time Pro Bowler.
Like when Joseph was Mike Zimmer’s first free agent addition during the 2014 defensive overhaul, the 27-year-old Pierce is also entering his fifth NFL season. Co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson told him the Vikings envision a similar trajectory as Joseph, who as a premiere run stopper also delivered crushing blows to quarterbacks during his prime with 27 hits in the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
“I love to stop the run. That is my calling card,” Pierce said during a teleconference with Twin Cities reporters. “But at this point in my career, it’s time to blossom and try to make some strides. [Patterson] expressed to me how he helped Linval grow his game and how he was in a similar position when the team signed him.”
Injuries took a toll on Joseph, who turns 32 in October after undergoing three surgeries in two years. During that time, the run defense dropped below its leading standard. Enter Pierce, who played at 345 pounds last season, as a colossal reset button in the middle of the Vikings defense.
Part of what lured the Vikings to sign Pierce, who first considered them in February when the team hired his friend and assistant defensive line coach Imarjaye Albury, was how he maneuvered as the heaviest player on the field. Pierce likely can’t match Joseph’s legendary pursuit from sideline to sideline. Vikings defensive backs were wary during practice while running toward ball carriers, because Joseph was often trailing like a rock slide.
But Pierce was equally immovable at times in Baltimore. He thrived as a cog in the Ravens’ deep rotation, which prevented him from playing more than 53.4% of defensive snaps in a season to this point. When he did play, Pierce’s quick feet and power to fight momentum of offensive linemen stood out to the Vikings.
Those traits were evident during the Ravens’ AFC Divisional playoff loss to the Titans in January. Pierce was mostly a bright spot in a forgettable game for the Ravens defense, leading Baltimore with four run stops. Only the Packers’ Kenny Clark had more run stops in the entire postseason among defensive tackles, per Pro Football Focus.
Pierce’s ability to “redirect,” or his reaction time and agility, for a big man further attracted the Vikings and was on display during this 4-yard run by Derrick Henry. As some NFL offenses lean on outside zone running games (see: Minnesota, Green Bay, Tennessee) to set up play-action bootlegs, defensive tackles need quick reactions to shut down cutback lanes.
Pierce is the first Ravens defender to see Henry’s cut and redirect, preventing this run from turning into another gash.
“They seem to like — for a big guy, I have good feet,” Pierce said. “I can redirect pretty well and I tend to be around the ball when I’m on the field.”
A Week 10 ankle injury interrupted Pierce’s fourth NFL season, which may have furthered his inconsistency. The 2016 undrafted product from Samford flashed brilliance immediately for the Ravens in his first preseason, but he remained a part-time player in a talented group. Vikings coaches now seek every-down reliability from Pierce. Incidents like last spring, when Pierce said he mismanaged his cardio training “very, very badly,” and was sent off the Ravens practice field for being out of shape, won’t go over well.
The front office is betting on the Vikings coaches’ ability to elevate and level out Pierce’s game as a full-time player. Pierce’s strength is stopping the run, be he can collapse a pocket or two.
The week before Pierce’s injury, he had many chances to show his development as a pass rusher when Tom Brady dropped back nearly 50 times. During this play from the Ravens’ Nov. 3 win in New England, Pierce’s power is reminiscent of Joseph in his prime.
Across from Patriots left guard Joe Thuney, whom the Patriots franchise tagged this month for nearly $15 million, Pierce drives him into the backfield. The hand fighting with Thuney lasts a half second too long for Pierce. Brady gets the ball out before he’s hit.
More efficient hand placement is atop the Vikings’ to-do list for Pierce, who may not get a first offseason workout program in Minnesota during April, May and June due to the cornoavirus pandemic. The NFL has delayed teams’ programs indefinitely.
“The thing coach Patterson stressed he’d like to see me work on before we get in there, and while I’m there, is just using my hands better,” Pierce said. “I have great power. I have pretty good agility. It’s just being more efficient.”
Pierce figured he was “at least in the top 10 strongest guys in the NFL,” and some of his 2019 film is evidence.
Few NFL defenses allowed fewer rushing first downs than the Ravens last season, due in part because of a strong defensive front with two true nose tackles in Pierce and Brandon Williams. That’s why Pierce left Baltimore, he said, because Williams would eventually return to nose as the Ravens shuffled its line this offseason.
For $9 million per season, the Vikings are paying handsomely to elevate what they see as a younger version of Joseph.
If Pierce can do this consistently, there should be no buyer’s remorse. He isn’t credited in the box score for this play below, but watch him take on the double team on third and 1. He creates the wall stalling LeSean McCoy for no gain during the Ravens’ Sept. 22 loss in Kansas City.
“I have a sheer love for weightlifting,” Pierce said. “I’d be doing that if I wasn’t playing ball. I’d probably be trying out for the Olympics or joining the Olympic weightlifting team.”