Ivan Pace Once Again Has a Chip on His Shoulder

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Ivan Pace is one of the bright spots in Minnesota’s underwhelming 2023 campaign. The undrafted rookie was viewed early as a candidate to make the team despite 32 teams passing on him multiple times, and he was also expected to play a role in his debut season because of the praise he had earned from teammates and coaches. But he even outplayed those expectations.

Ivan Pace Once Again Has a Chip on His Shoulder

Ivan Pace Once Again Has a Chip on His Shoulder
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It was a random first down in his first preseason game versus the Seahawks. A routine run play to the right side in the second quarter. Well, Pace had other plans when he hit the offensive lineman who weighed roughly 70 lbs more, slipped past him, and grabbed the lower leg of running back Zach Charbonnet. It was a well-blocked play with a huge hole for a dynamic rookie running back, but Pace made the stop and limited the gain to only a couple of yards.

It was early when Vikings fans realized he might be more than just a blitzing specialist who would see a handful of snaps per game. Earning the green dot in the preseason and snaps over projected starter Brian Asamoah, Pace was inactive in the final preseason game, ensuring his roster spot. In addition to that, he joined Jordan Hicks in the starting lineup, playing big numbers of snaps while also continuing to make plays.

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Head coach Kevin O’Connell talked about the rookie in August after his first preseason contests, and everything he said translated to the regular season. Playing with and against starters wasn’t overwhelming for him.

He’s, really in every facet of the game, how we’re playing defense, the communication, pressure, no pressure, the way he has the athleticism to run sideline to sideline, maybe cancel out some mistakes. If we lose a gap here or there, he’s shown to be able to get off blocks for a guy that, when I watched his tape in college, he was almost unblockable and that’s translating in a lot of ways.

It could be a great look for a play, getting a lineman up to him on the second level and he somehow avoids that block and makes the play while maintaining doing his job so he doesn’t undress any other facet of the defensive call. He did great with the green dot the other day in Seattle. So, really, he’s-gold stars all the way around for Ivan. As I’ve challenged him to do, you’re not just trying to compete to make our team, let’s see where you can go and help us possibly win football games from the jump.

New and Simple
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An attempted (and failed) tackle on quarterback Baker Mayfield in a clutch moment in the season-opener might have been his welcome to the NFL moment, but he bounced back. Through 16 games, Pro Football Focus grades him as the 19th-best linebacker in football–not bad for an undrafted rookie. He also ranks inside the top 20 of his position in pass rush grade and coverage grade.

The pass rush has been his specialty since college, where he tabulated 10 sacks in the final year of his collegiate career. In the NFL, especially in Brian Flores’ blitz-heavy scheme, he has been fantastic, producing a pass-rush win rate of 21.2, ranking him sixth in the league. The guys over him? Micah Parsons, Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald, Nick Bosa, and Bryce Huff. Again, not bad for an undrafted rookie.

Summer Sensation
Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (0) jogs back to the locker room after pregame ceremonies recognizing seniors on the roster before the first quarter during a college football game against the Tulane Green Wave, Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. © Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK.

Pace was named unanimous first-team All-American with elite numbers of 10 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss, and 137 overall tackles in his final season, and he still fell all the way to the undrafted rookie pool where the Vikings picked him up. He was supposed to be too small. An underwhelming linebacker group and Flores’ arrival certainly helped lure him to Minnesota.

Immediately after signing his deal, he sent a message to the other 31 NFL teams on Instagram:

y'all done up ivan pace

He was right. In 16 games, Pace has produced 93 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 8 QB hits, but the most impressive aspect of his debut season was when Jordan Hicks had to exit the game with a scary lower leg injury, and Pace was suddenly the guy in charge of the defense, calling the plays on the field.

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In the four games without Hicks, he was the green dot guy, the player that shares the play calls from Flores to his teammates, getting them in the right spots and calling the audibles based on the looks the team is getting from the opponents. A veteran doing that is impressive, let alone a rookie.

His performance in 689 snaps on defense and 226 on special teams has been nothing short of spectacular, and apparently, he wanted an invitation to the Pro Bowl. When the NFL announced the five NFC Pro Bowl linebackers, he didn’t make the list and once again hit social media.

Pace is one of those players who just play better when they have a chip on their shoulder, the guys who try to find those chips.

The linebacker didn’t quite play at a Pro Bowl level, but if he has proven one thing, some extra motivation can do wonders for him. Because of his solid performance in his first year, expectations will be sky-high for him. Hicks is scheduled to hit free agency, so his role could even grow.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt