EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings had one of the league’s best defensive lines on paper entering the 2018 season.
The bookends were a Pro Bowl/All-Pro defensive end in Everson Griffen and a rising young star in Danielle Hunter, sandwiching Pro Bowl nose tackle Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson, a splashy free agent signing from March.
Add in respectable depth behind them, and the Vikings appeared to have the makings of one of the top units in the league.
But in a season that saw Minnesota go 8-7-1 and endure some ups and downs, the defensive line endured the same ebbs and flows.
Hunter was a force off the edge on a weekly basis as he was named a Second-Team All-Pro after posting a career-high 14.5 sacks. Richardson showed flashes of being a dominant player in his first season in Purple, recording 4.5 sacks.
Joseph endured injuries throughout the season but turned in one of the season’s biggest plays in Week 5 at Philadelphia when he returned a fumble 64 yards for a touchdown. Griffen missed five games to focus on personal and mental health matters. He finished his ninth season with 5.5 sacks.
Defensive end Stephen Weatherly stepped up in Griffen’s absence with 3.0 sacks, and Tom Johnson returned to Minnesota early in the 2018 season to rack up 4.5 sacks in a limited role.
Jaleel Johnson played a quarter of the Vikings total defensive snaps. Tashawn Bower and Jalyn Holmes filled in when necessary but were mostly inactive for the majority of the season.
Minnesota’s defensive line recorded 35.5 sacks to help the Vikings finish tied for third with 50 total sacks on the season.
But the Vikings struggled at times against the run, as Minnesota finished 15th in the league by allowing 113.4 rushing yards per game.
The Vikings routinely talk about stopping the run to be able to earn the right to rush the passer, but Minnesota wasn’t able to accomplish that first goal consistently as the Vikings gave up 100 or more rushing yards in half of their games this season.
The Vikings defensive line will still boast plenty of skill and big names in 2019, especially if Richardson returns after signing a 1-year deal last offseason.
But if they can mix in more consistency with their talent, that could help the Vikings get back in the postseason picture.
14.5 — Hunter announced his presence as one of the NFL’ premier young pass rushers as he set a career high with 14.5 sacks in his fourth season in the league. Just 24 years old, Hunter had three multi-sack games and recorded at least one sack in 10 of Minnesota’s 16 contests. The young defensive end, who signed a contract extension in the summer, has 40 career sacks in four seasons, which topped Hall of Famer Alan Page’s franchise record for a Viking in his first four pro seasons.
The Vikings were engaged in a dogfight with the defending Super Bowl champions before Minnesota’s biggest player turned the tide.
With just over four minutes left in the second quarter, Linval Joseph snatched a fumble out of midair and rumbled 64 yards for a touchdown, the first of his career.
The defensive tackle’s first career score helped the Vikings grab a 10-3 advantage. Minnesota wouldn’t give up the lead in a Week 5 win at Philadelphia as the Vikings improved to 2-2-1 on the season.
74 total tackles (team stats) with 26 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, one fumble recovery and one defensive touchdown
79 total tackles (team stats) with four tackles for loss, one sack, a forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one defensive touchdown
61 total tackles (team stats) with 11 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks
39 total tackles (team stats) with eight tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks
42 total tackles (team stats) with seven tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, one forced fumble
30 total tackles (team stats) with nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries
19 total tackles (team stats) with three tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, one forced fumble
Six total tackles (team stats) with one tackle for loss
Five total tackles (team stats) with one tackle for loss and a sack
2 Highest highs
1. When you set a franchise record for sacks in a game, it has to be a high moment, especially when the defensive line had a hand with nine of the 10 sacks.
The Vikings pummeled Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford all game long as the Vikings received multi-sack games from three players. Hunter led the way with 3.5 while Tom Johnson had 2.5 and Griffen had 1.5.
Weatherly had sack, and Richardson split one as the Vikings reached double digits for the first time in franchise history.
2. We’re sticking with the same game in Week 9 for this one, as Hunter stamped the best game of his career with his second defensive touchdown in four seasons.
The Vikings led 17-6 a little more than midway through the fourth quarter when Stafford scrambled to his right. He attempted to pitch the ball to a teammate, but the unsuspecting player wasn’t ready as the ball tumbled to the turf.
Hunter promptly scooped and scored on a 32-yard fumble return for a touchdown as the key play highlighted a dynamic day for the Vikings defense.
2 Lowest lows
1. It’s tough enough to win in New England, and even tougher when you don’t stop the run or get pressure on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The Vikings didn’t do either in Week 13 on the road. Brady wasn’t sacked, and New England ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns on 39 rushes.
Minnesota gave up 471 yards of offense to the Patriots, the second-highest total allowed by the Vikings all season.
2. Nothing went right for the Vikings defense against the Rams, as Minnesota surrendered a season-high 556 yards of offense in Los Angeles — the highest total in Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer’s five seasons in Minnesota.
The Vikings defensive line failed to generate substantial pressure on Rams quarterback Jared Goff, who picked apart the defense for 465 passing yards and was sacked just once.
Minnesota also allowed 100 rushing yards on just 20 attempts.
The Vikings defensive struggles on the West Coast ultimately led to a turnaround as Minnesota finished ninth in points allowed per game at 21.3.
“It was all a team effort, man. Guys stepped up big today, and we played as a team. We know that every week it’s not going to be like that, so we have to take advantage of the opportunities we get and rush together. The whole D-line … we had a big day.”
— Griffen on the Vikings 10-sack performance in Week 9 against the Lions