The Vikings defensive line ended the 2016 season with plenty of evidence to support the claim it was the NFL’s best at pressuring the quarterback.
The group was the only defensive line in the league to boast three players with at least seven sacks (Danielle Hunter, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison). According to Football Outsiders, the Vikings defense pressured quarterbacks 30.1 percent of the time — the fourth-best mark in the league — and Griffen was tied for the seventh-most individual pressures in the league, matching Denver’s Von Miller with 38.
But if the group ended last year near the head of the class, it’s going to start this season with two graduate-level exams.
Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger — the first two quarterbacks on the Vikings schedule — are regularly among the hardest QBs in the league to sack, for markedly different reasons. Roethlisberger, whom the Vikings will face on Sept. 17 in Pittsburgh, is difficult to bring down simply because he’s so big: at 6-5 and 240 pounds, his height and weight are nearly identical to Hunter’s.
It is Brees the Vikings will see first, however, and the 38-year-old represents just as tough a test. The New Orleans quarterback dropped back more often than all but one QB in the league last season, according to Pro Football Focus, and was still pressured on a lower percentage of his dropbacks than all but two, working out of a clean pocket 75.6 percent of the time to Roethlisberger’s 75.8.
Brees stands just 6 feet, but his quick release, ability to create an extra split-second in the pocket — not to mention his schematic mastery at the line of scrimmage — make him a tough opening task.
“His thing is to get everybody flustered,” said Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson, who played three seasons with Brees in New Orleans. “He’s trying to do quick counts, he’s got checkdowns and he’s using the guys he’s got with him.”
Brees has been sacked four or more times in a game only 16 times since 2009. He won’t have the crowd on his side Monday night, with U.S. Bank Stadium likely to be at full throat in anticipation of Adrian Peterson’s return, but the Vikings aren’t likely to present much that Brees hasn’t seen at some point in his prolific 16-year career.
“He is really hard to fool,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s seen so many different things. He’s a great competitor. Part of it is doing what we do. Will we change up some? Sure. So will they. They try to keep you off balance, we’ll try to keep them off balance and we’ll go to work.”
As the Vikings surged to a 5-0 start last year, they battered Super Bowl- or MVP-winning quarterbacks in three consecutive weeks, sacking Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton and Eli Manning a combined 13 times while intercepting them five times.
What will they need to render Brees as ineffective?
“We’ve got to rush as a team,” Johnson said. “Guys know we have to stay in our lanes. He’s a shorter guy, so get the hands up, make him flustered, and our back end is going to do their job. Hopefully, we make him make throws he’s not comfortable making.”
The Vikings could be helped by the fact Brees won’t have slot receiver Willie Snead, who will miss the game as he begins a three-game suspension following a drunken driving arrest. They will also get a chance to match up Griffen and Hunter with Saints rookie left tackle Ryan Ramcyzk, who will start in place of injured Terron Armstead.
“He’s got good hands; he’ll try to switch it up,” Griffen said of Ramcyzk. “The biggest thing right now is for me to break the guy down, break down their tendencies. That’s why we practice three days a week, four days a week. When you go out there in the games, you want it to be second nature.”
There’s plenty about the quarterback position that has seemed to come easy to Brees for a long time. If the Vikings are able to harass him the way they did Rodgers and Manning at U.S. Bank Stadium last year, they will have provided a rare moment in the quarterback’s illustrious career.
“He’s awful good,” Zimmer said. “He’s got an unbelievable arm, too, but one of the things that sets him apart, too, is, he’s so quick getting rid of the football, knowing where to go to the different spots. He really is a Hall of Fame kind of quarterback, obviously one of the best in the NFL and one of the best that’s ever played.
“If he doesn’t pull the ball down, if you don’t make him pull the ball down, he’s going to get it out and he’s not going to get sacked.”