Sack by sack, a dominant Vikings defense pieced together an extended highlight reel for the postgame shows during last weekend’s 22-10 beatdown of Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. The one that got the most exposure was Danielle Hunter’s safety, which came after he put Panthers left tackle Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame on his backside.
Those watching the clip likely focused on Hunter as he quickly pancaked Oher on his way to Newton in the end zone. But Hunter’s highlight probably doesn’t have a happy ending if not for the unheralded work of the refrigerator-sized man next to him.
At the snap of the ball, nose tackle Linval Joseph was immediately blocked by a pair of Panthers linemen. Carolina center Ryan Kalil was named a first-team All-Pro for the second time last season. But on this play, and many others, he could not handle Joseph alone.
Left guard Andrew Norwell had to linger longer than he would have liked and was slow to release and help Oher. He desperately tried to shove Hunter wide of Newton but was a step late. Hunter toppled the reigning MVP for a tide-turning safety.
“That shows how good Linval Joseph is. When you, as a left guard, don’t trust a guy like Ryan Kalil to be able to block him one-on-one? That’s a lot of respect you’re showing that guy,” said former NFL defensive end Stephen White, now an analyst for SB Nation. “It kind of changed the complexion of that game. Little stuff like that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but it makes Linval Joseph such an asset for Mike Zimmer’s defense.”
In 2014, Joseph was the first significant free-agent signing of the Zimmer era. The New York Giants, whom the Vikings host Monday night at U.S. Bank Stadium, let Joseph walk because they felt they could simply plug another space-eater into the middle of their line. Two and a half years later, Joseph might be Minnesota’s most indispensable defender.
In his first two seasons here, Joseph, who enjoys doing the dirty work like he did on Hunter’s safety, was a 330-pound difference-maker hidden in plain sight. But with three sacks in his first three games this season, the former high school point guard is finally getting the attention he deserves as arguably the best nose tackle in the NFL.
“His first practice [in 2014], I got a chance to actually see him move around, I was like, ‘Oh, my god. This big man can move,’ ” defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. “That didn’t show up on the tape when he was with the Giants. But nobody can miss it now.”
Fitting the bill
After drafting Joseph in the second round of the 2010 draft, the Giants were never able to unlock his full potential. They mostly used him on early downs and to plug the middle at the goal line. But when it was time to rush the passer, he was rushed to the bench.
In 2013, his final year in New York, he only played about half of the defensive snaps.
When Zimmer arrived in Minnesota the following winter, he had a lesson from mentor Bill Parcells in mind when he told the personnel staff what he was looking for.
“I remember one time he came up to me when we were in Dallas and he said, ‘Have you ever had a team that could just overpower people?’ Because he always wanted big guys,” Zimmer recalled this week with a grin. “I said no. And he said, ‘Well, you will.’ ”
Zimmer, who with the Cincinnati Bengals coached a pretty stout nose tackle in Domata Peko, told General Manager Rick Spielman and the team’s pro personnel staff that he needed a big, powerful nose tackle to anchor his attacking 4-3 front. After reviewing the available options, they told Zimmer and Patterson to take a long look at Joseph.
After getting a thumbs-up from the head coach, the Vikings signed Joseph to a five-year, $31.3 million deal and actually got more than what they thought they were paying for.
“We knew he was a big guy and didn’t get knocked off the ball,” Patterson said. “But once we got him and saw how much of an athlete he was, then we worked real hard to try to bring the athleticism out of him so he could be a guy that could make plays [all over the place].”
Redefining the role
When you think of nose tackles, the image that might come to mind is someone like former NFL man mountain Ted Washington, once listed at 375 pounds, with a giant gut hanging over his belt. But Joseph and the Vikings are trying to change that notion.
“Back in the day, they were just big bodies who sat right there and don’t get knocked off the ball, so you couldn’t run the ball up the middle,” Patterson said. “We want athletes, from our nose tackle position all the way out back to our safeties and corners.”
Joseph, at 6 feet 4 and 330 pounds, is still plenty hefty, though he’s trimmed down this season.
Joseph has rare agility and explosiveness for a man his size, bringing to mind the “Planet Theory” thought up by Parcells. The Hall of Fame head coach theorized that there are only so many athletic 300-pounders on the planet, and when given a chance to get their hands on one, teams should do everything they can to make it happen.
Instead of just plopping Joseph in front of the center like a 3-4 nose tackle, the Vikings line him up head up on the center or the guard or anywhere in between. He occasionally is directly across from the center in what is called the zero-technique spot. But more often Joseph is a shaded one-technique, lined up on the inside shoulder of a guard.
In that role, Joseph is a threat to attack the A gap, which is the space between the center and guard. Unlike many nose tackles, Joseph has the burst to consistently do that, so offenses often ask the center and guard to squeeze together to stop him.
An ensuing double team puts the other defensive tackle or an edge rusher such as Hunter or Pro Bowl right end Everson Griffen in a one-on-one matchup. And if offenses leave one lineman alone with Joseph, he can dart into the backfield to blow up the play.
“In a 3-4, you want that big hulking Vince Wilfork body type who forces you to have to block him with two guys. You can have a smaller guy as a shaded nose in a 4-3 defense, but he still has to at least be big enough to hold up against double teams, to hold up against the run while being able to be nimble enough to make tackles,” White said. “Linval Joseph is the best of both worlds. Those guys are few and far between.”
At full strength
After Friday’s morning walkthrough, Joseph agreed to park it for a few minutes on a weight bench inside Winter Park to talk about his role. The 27-year-old can be a man of few words, especially when the recorders come out, but he piped up when a reporter said that not many children dream of being an NFL nose tackle when they grow up.
“Whatchu mean by that?” he said, followed by a hearty ha-ha-ha. “At nose tackle, you still can make interceptions. You still can make big hits. You can still make plays.”
It is hard to argue with the big man, nor is it recommended. While Joseph is still looking for his first career interception, he has 18 tackles and one forced fumble so far, and one sack in all three games this season already has him one shy of his career high.
But more often than not, his impact on the game shows up on someone else’s stat line, whether it is Hunter sacking Newton for a safety or one of the team’s young linebackers, Anthony Barr or Eric Kendricks, ranging untouched to drag down a running back.
“Like Coach [Zimmer] always says, somebody’s got to do the dirty work,” Joseph said.
Down the stretch last season, when Joseph wasn’t around to do it because of a toe injury that sidelined him for four games and required offseason surgery, the defense struggled, particularly against the run. If Joseph’s big toe is OK for the playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks, maybe the Vikings don’t need to rely on the one belonging to Blair Walsh in the final minute.
Joseph is back to full strength this season and is playing the best ball of his career. His technique continues to improve.
With Zimmer’s defense leading the league in sacks and takeaways while fueling the Vikings to wins over the Green Bay Packers and Panthers and a 3-0 start, Joseph has started to garner national attention but is by no means a household name. And he’s OK with that, saying, “All I’m trying to do is help my team win and be consistent.”
But if Joseph keeps barreling into the backfield for sacks and tackles for a loss, and if the defense continues to play at an elite level, it will be impossible to overlook his impact.
“It’s set up to where it is hard for him to get national recognition because he doesn’t play on many passing downs and the sexy stat for a defensive linemen is sacks,” White said. “However, if he keeps playing like he’s playing, you won’t have to worry about him not getting enough attention, because that defense is playing out of its mind right now.”