How do the Minnesota Vikings contain St. Louis Rams running back Todd Gurley tomorrow? With news that Eric Kendricks will miss Sunday’s game and Sharrif Floyd will be inactive for a third straight week, the answer’s becomes much less clear. There’s Anthony Barr, but Mike Zimmer’s double A-Gap blitzes are only as effective as the players executing them; without Kendricks, the threat of the “Bruin Brothers” attacking the quarterback is gone. Up front, Tom Johnson has been a revelation while filling in for Floyd, making an impact as a pass rusher and run-stuffer.
Without Linval Joseph clogging the middle of the defense, though, this unit wouldn’t be nearly as successful as it has been this season. The nose tackle, who Zimmer recently called “the best” he’s ever had, is giving the Vikings’ head coach the ability to get aggressive with his play calls. Joseph consistently flashes his strength and deceptive speed on film, and those traits will be critical as the Vikings look to move to 6-2 tomorrow. Joseph is the cog in the middle that makes Zimmer’s scheme work, and his addition to the team last offseason is paying dividends for the Vikings as they push toward the playoffs.
Signed to a five-year, $31.25 million deal before the 2014 season, Joseph was expected to become the next great defensive lineman in Minnesota. Initially, he struggled to pick up Zimmer’s complex defense, but a year under the coach’s tutelage has helped Joseph blossom into an elite disruptor for the Vikings. “I feel way more comfortable this year than I did last year in the system,” said Joseph. “I just want to do whatever it takes to make my team win.”
Through seven games, Joseph has just 19 tackles, but his impact goes much deeper than the stat sheet. A look at the film reveals a player who not only creates havoc in the backfield with explosion and raw strength, but creates opportunities for other defenders. If the Vikings are to stop Gurley on Sunday, Joseph will need to be the focal point of their defensive attack.
In the Vikings’ Week 8 victory over the Chicago Bears, Joseph led the team’s collective effort in holding Chicago’s running backs under the century mark. The play above, a one-yard loss for Jeremy Langford, was made possible by Joseph’s explosive lateral movement. At 6’4″, 328 pounds, Joseph shouldn’t be able to move this fast. His size is deceptive, and often, he uses that speed to outflank and outmaneuver centers and guards at the snap.
Here, Joseph is lined up in a “three-technique” on the outside shade of the right guard.The Bears run Langford on a zone play to the left, forcing Joseph to cross the guard’s face and fill the A-gap. The defensive line as a whole is slanting to their right, and each down lineman is responsible for the gap to his right — Tom Johnson the play side A-gap, Joseph the backside A-gap, Scott Crichton the backside B-gap, and so on and so forth.
Joseph crosses the guard’s face with ease, and the guard’s attempt at a block is negated by Joseph’s balance in the hole. He stays lateral to the line of scrimmage as he slants, and his footwork keeps him on balance through the contact. The block by the guard hardly moves him, and Joseph gathers himself to bring Langford down in the backfield.
In this situation, the Vikings are expecting a rush up the middle. The Lions, in their second meeting with the Vikings, are threatening to score at the one-yard line, but another strong move by Joseph prevents the touchdown. He makes use of his speed again, but also displays power critical in short-yardage situations.
Like the previous play, Joseph slants inside, attempting to cross the guard’s face. He’s lined up directly over the guard, making this move much easier. However, the condensed space forces Joseph to rely more on power than speed. His first step comes faster than the guard can react, giving Joseph an immediate advantage. He recognizes the situation, and knocks the guard back by throwing both hands through the would-be blocker.
Watch his head placement; Joseph’s helmet is in front of the guard’s chest, which is textbook technique for slanting defensive lineman. That placement prevents the guard from locking into the defender’s chest and gives Joseph a leverage advantage. In no way, shape, or form can the guard regain position, and Joseph blows him back to force yet another tackle for loss.
Linval Joseph can rush the passer, too? Surprisingly, yes. Here, he’s lined up in a “one-technique” on the outside shoulder of the center. At the snap, Joseph rifles his hands up like a defensive end, slapping away the center’s hands and forcing his way through the A-gap. The powerful hand-fighting turns the center’s shoulders and creates a lane straight to the quarterback. The left guard, who tries to help, is too slow to react and can’t slow the momentum of Joseph. The rush results in a hurried Rivers throw and incompletion.
The lateral movement, power, and understanding of Mike Zimmer’s defense will be critical for Joseph as he tries to slow Todd Gurley. The Rams have one of the league’s worst offensive lines, but the great backs like Peterson and Gurley can make plays even when blocking breaks down. Hopefully, Joseph will be the one creating havoc and shutting down Gurley before he can find creases in the defense.