The Vikings defensive line has been a huge point of pride and success since Mike Zimmer was hired as coach in 2014. One of his first hires here was Andre Patterson, who has coached with Zimmer off and on for nearly 30 years.
Patterson also served as Vikings defensive line coach in 1998 and ’99. In the five years since his return, his defensive linemen have universally praised him as not only a great coach, but a great leader in their lives.
The defense has been the identity of this team under Zimmer. It ranked 14th in the NFL in total defense in 2014, 13th in 2015, third in 2016 and first in 2017, and Patterson has developed several of his lineman into standout NFL players.
Patterson said his close-knit group is missing defensive end Everson Griffen while he addresses his mental health issues, which Patterson considers far more important than football.
“Personally, I miss him a lot. He is like a son to me,” Patterson said. “I think about him every day, I pray for him every day. My heart and my soul, everything is with him. He is a great person. I’m very, very close to him and all I care about is Everson the person.
“Not one thought of football is on my mind about Everson. I want him to be OK. I want him to be happy. I want him to have a fulfilled life that he deserves to have.”
There is no question Griffen’s absence has been devastating for the team. He was vital to the Vikings going 13-3 last season, while being named to his third consecutive Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro. He recorded a career-high 13 sacks.
But more importantly than Griffen’s stats, his teammates continue to hope for his healthy recovery and return to the team because of their close friendships.
When asked if he thinks he will see Griffen on the field yet this season, Patterson remained positive.
“I hope so. We are taking it day by day,” said Patterson, 58. “The most important thing is that he gets himself right. That is more important than any football game will ever be.”
Linemen step up
In Griffen’s absence, other Vikings defensive linemen have received more playing time and emerged.
Stephen Weatherly recorded his second sack of the season in the 23-21 victory at Philadelphia on Sunday, forcing a fumble by Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz that Linval Joseph grabbed and returned 64 yards for a touchdown.
“[Weatherly] has done an outstanding job,” Patterson said. “He has been working here for three years to try to get better every single day and you’re starting to see the athleticism, the type of football player that I knew he could become when we first drafted him. He just kept working hard every day and now you’re starting to see the fruits of his labor come forward in the games.”
Danielle Hunter, who signed a five-year, $72 million deal in the offseason, has started the season with an incredible streak of five consecutive games with a sack. Even more importantly, Patterson said, is that Hunter is becoming a more complete player.
“Danielle had a very good year for us last year, and everybody oversells the sacks,” Patterson said. “He only had seven [in 2017], so people look at it as he had a down year. But in actuality, he had a better year last year than the year … before when he had [12½] sacks.
“He had a much better year as far as the football player was concerned. This year it’s him being comfortable, he’s taking his game to a whole other level and he’s played outstanding in these early ballgames.”
And Patterson said the duo of Joseph and Sheldon Richardson in the middle of the line sometimes gets overlooked, but he described how the defensive ends would have much less success without their efforts.
“Linval Joseph is playing consistent like he always does. I think he’s the best nose guard in the National Football League,” Patterson said. “Sheldon Richardson has been a great addition to our team. Part of the reasons that the ends — Everson when he was here and Danielle and Stephen — the reason they’re having the production is that Sheldon is getting great push in the middle, him and Linval, and not allowing the quarterback to step up, and now those ends are able to turn the corner.
“That was one thing we were missing a year ago. [Richardson’s] addition to our team has been outstanding.”
The Vikings’ victory over the Eagles was gigantic and sets them up to be big favorites in their next two games against the Cardinals at home Sunday and on the road next week against the Jets.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said his knowledge of his former team — he was quarterbacks coach in Philadelphia last season — was requested heading into the game, but he didn’t take much credit for the defense’s success.
“The way I tried to help was just kind of [discussing] strengths and weaknesses of the players, the way I saw it,” he said. “But [the defense] had some questions for me that I answered. At the same time, schemes change every year because players change, so you can only help so much on the scheme part.”
How big was this victory for DeFilippo, who also grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia?
“It was good to get back on the winning track and against a team that is really, really good,” he said. “Anytime you can win a game like that on the road, it is really good for our football team.”
One final word on why the Twins’ firing of manager Paul Molitor was a big blow to me.
How well did I know Molitor and his career? The first time he appeared in my column was Sept. 27, 1974, when Molitor was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Minnesota.
I wrote columns about Molitor throughout his career with the Gophers. I wrote about his first All-Star Game selection in 1980 with the Brewers, and when he signed a three-year, $13 million deal with Toronto in 1992 after 15 years in Milwaukee. And before he signed with the Twins in 1995 for his final three seasons, I kept close tabs on him in my column. We had a very close relationship before he became Twins manager in 2015.
We even made a trip to Florida together. I went to his first wedding and was close to his entire family.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Molitor get the manager’s job in Toronto, where he played from 1993 to 1995, made two All-Star teams and won a World Series in 1993.
I don’t think there is any chance of Molitor staying in a different position with the Twins next season. They owe him two years of salary, and I think he will take it.