The calm surrounding Danielle Hunter is a stark contrast to the way he forcefully erases offensive linemen from games. That’s fitting for an NFL star who idolizes Bruce Lee — whose silhouette is Hunter’s background photo whenever he checks his cellphone.
Hunter is the methodical half of the Vikings’ star defensive end duo, which through 10 games has made a strong case to be the league’s best. The Vikings’ sack leader entering his prime is the calculated attacker who runs to find the edge.
On the other side, Everson Griffen, the frenetic 31-year-old sparkplug, has returned to peak form as a ball-of-fire bull rusher.
“Like yin and yang,” defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo said. “They’re two completely different rushers: Everson’s on the shorter side, explosive, physical; [Hunter] is on the longer side, using his legs and his speed.”
Together, they spearhead the NFL’s fifth-ranked scoring defense.
The duo’s strong seasons appear likely to continue Sunday against Broncos quarterback Brandon Allen, who is making his second NFL start and, in his start against the Browns, showed Vikings defenders he holds onto the ball when under pressure.
Hunter embraces a famous Lee quote — “Be like water” — which he first heard watching Saturday morning karate movies growing up in Jamaica. Hunter is intrigued by Lee’s adaptable approach, and deploys it on Sundays with the flow of a trained Jeet Kune Do fighter, untethered and doing whatever to win.
“If anything happens, there’s always a way to get out of it,” said Hunter, who has 8½ sacks this season. “You don’t panic about anything. There’s always a way to overcome it; being able to change in times of adversity ... ‘Be like water.’ ”
Griffen, coincidentally, also has an ear for Lee’s teachings. He previously gifted a signed Pro Bowl jersey to his personal movement coach, Shawn Myszka, inscribed with this Lee quote: “The highest technique is to have no technique. My technique is a result of your technique; my movement is a result of your movement.”
The Vikings’ two masters of the edge still disrupt differently. Griffen is the bull rusher with relentless downhill charges and spins, like the 360-degree move that got him past Cowboys left tackle Tyron Smith and forced a Dak Prescott throwaway in the red zone during the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ victory at Dallas on Sunday night.
Hunter, a two-time Vikings nominee for the Art Rooney Sportsmanship Award, is subdued between plays. Teammates can’t recall a decibel of trash talk. Sack celebrations are limited to Lee-style karate kicks, which Griffen often joins. Hunter has only six penalties in five NFL seasons, none being personal fouls. Griffen remains headstrong before and after the whistle, spotted yelling at opposing players or coaches when he’s not pumping up his own teammates.
“That’s how we roll,” said Griffen, who has six sacks. “I’ve been this way my whole career.”
Few offenses have slowed them. Hunter and Griffen are the NFL’s only edge duo ranking top 10 in quarterback pressures and run stops this season, according to Pro Football Focus. They are almost the top two pass rushers overall as Hunter’s 64 pressures lead the league and Griffen’s 56 rank third, one behind Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith (57).
They have attracted waves of blockers, and Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he has had to get creative to generate an interior pass rush to complement them.
“We have to try to continue to figure out ways where we can get [extra blockers] off them,” Zimmer said. “Sometimes it’s by pressuring inside or outside or things like that.”
With Von Miller and Bradley Chubb on his roster, Broncos coach Vic Fangio envisioned a similar Denver duo before Chubb suffered a season-ending knee injury in September. Having not just one, but two premiere edge defenders is a benefit because of how affect game plans.
“Players like that many times have a major effect on the game even when it doesn’t show in the stat sheet,” said Fangio, a former defensive coordinator for the Bears and 49ers, “because of what people are doing to adjust to blocking them.”
So how does Fangio see the challenge ahead for Broncos tackles Elijah Wilkerson and Garett Bolles?
“Unfortunately,” Fangio said, “pretty big.”
There might be a few karate kicks flying around Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.