EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings defensive line demonstrated depth and a new-look rotation during the 2019 season, while familiar faces continued to affect opposing offenses.
The unit was bookended once again by a pair of Pro Bowl defensive ends in 10th-year veteran Everson Griffen and fifth-year pro Danielle Hunter. On the interior were nose tackle Linval Joseph and 3-technique Shamar Stephen, who returned to a starting role with Minnesota for the first time since 2016. Stephen subbed-in during 2017 and spent the 2018 campaign with Seattle.
Behind the starters, the Vikings were able to rotate with Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo (who played inside and outside). Young defensive tackles Hercules Mata'afa and rookie Armon Watts also saw some reps.
Griffen returned to form in 2019 after missing five games the previous season to deal with a personal matter. He started 15 games (he and other starters were rested during the regular-season finale) and recorded 8.0 sacks, which ranked second on the team behind Hunter's 14.5.
Speaking of Hunter, the 25-year-old may just finally be getting the respect he deserves across the league. In addition to setting an NFL record (more on that below), Hunter was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week in recognition of his overall performance in Week 14 against the Lions.
View the best photos from the Vikings team photographers of the defensive line in 2019.
Following the season, he received his second career Pro Bowl nod and played in Sunday's All-Star game in Orlando.
Weatherly continued to show improvement in his fourth NFL season, and fellow seventh-round draft pick Odenigbo had a breakout season.
Odenigbo, who re-signed with the Vikings after spending time on Cleveland and Arizona's practice squads, proved to be a disruptive pass rusher with a knack for finding the football. In his first full season on an active roster, the Northwestern alum totaled eight tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a pass defensed.
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer spoke in October about the way Odenigbo worked his way up and earned the trust of coaches.
"Number one, he worked really, extremely hard in the offseason, and I remember toward the end of last season when he was on the scout team, he was making those guys on the other side of the ball work really, really hard," Zimmer said. "He … kept getting stronger and more athletic. He came in here with a purpose of he was going to make this team and try to help us win. He's done a nice job."
Minnesota's defensive line experienced a few ups and downs in the run game but overall played well and improved slightly from allowing 113.5 rushing yards per game in 2018 to 108.0 per game this season.
In the passing game, the Vikings defensive linemen accounted for 41.5 of the team's 48 total sacks on the season (which tied for fifth-best in the league).
99.5 — Since Minnesota drafted Hunter 88th overall in 2015, he and Griffen have combined for 99.5 total sacks. The duo has combined for more sacks than any other pair of current teammates in the NFL in that time span. The next-closest duo is Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, who have combined for 89.5 in Cincinnati.
Anytime you set an NFL record, it makes for a pretty memorable day.
Hunter did just that against the Lions in Week 14. He needed one-half sack to set the new league benchmark but for good measure got 3.0.
After back-to-back pass deflections by Stephen and Harrison Smith to start the division matchup, Hunter smelled blood in the water on third-and-10.
When he took down rookie QB David Blough for a loss of 6, Hunter became the youngest NFL player to record 50 career sacks (since it became an official stat in 1982). The 25-year-old went on to notch two more sacks of Blough for the hat trick on a historic day.
76 total tackles (team stats) with 16 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and a pass defensed
54 total tackles (team stats) with six tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and a forced fumble
46 total tackles (team stats) with 11 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, one interception and a pass defensed
42 total tackles (team stats) with five tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a pass defensed
36 total tackles (team stats) with three tackles for loss, 1.0 sack, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and three passes defensed
31 total tackles (team stats) with five tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks and one forced fumble
25 total tackles (team stats) with eight tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and one pass defensed
14 total tackles (team stats) with one tackle for loss, 1.5 sacks and a pass defensed
Six total tackles (team stats) with one tackle for loss
Two total tackles (team stats) with one tackle for loss, one fumble recovery and a pass defensed
1. The Saints offensive line didn't quite know what hit them.
Hint: It was Griffen and Hunter.
The Vikings moved the defensive ends to the interior of Minnesota's defensive line during the Wild Card game at New Orleans, and the duo wreaked havoc on the Saints guards. A usually stout offensive line struggled to combat the Vikings pass rush, and future Hall of Famer Drew Brees felt the heat more than once.
Griffen and Hunter combined for 3.0 total sacks (1.5 apiece) of Brees, who had been sacked just 12 times over 11 regular-season games (a thumb injury sidelined him five weeks). The defensive approach helped Minnesota upset New Orleans in overtime and advance to the Divisional round of the playoffs.
2. Have a day, defense.
Minnesota caused an impressive seven turnovers by the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 15 en route to a 39-10 West Coast win.
The most memorable of the takeaways occurred on a Hunter strip-sack of Philip Rivers, after which the loose ball was recovered by Odenigbo and returned 56 yards for a touchdown to give the Vikings a 19-10 lead.
Hunter finished the day with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery of his own.
1. The Vikings allowed opponents to average 108.0 rushing yards per game in the regular season, which ranked 13th in the NFL. But at Seattle on Monday Night Football in Week 13, it seemed Minnesota couldn't stop much of anything. Defensive linemen routinely preach, "stop the run first," but the Seahawks racked up 218 yards rushing en route to a 37-30 win. Hunter and Odenigbo did manage a sack apiece of Russell Wilson, but the slippery quarterback still finished the day with 240 yards passing and two touchdowns.
2. In the Divisional round game at San Francisco, Minnesota allowed 186 yards on the ground. While the number can't be pinned on the defensive line alone, the front four was unable to slow the run which, in turn, meant there wasn't much of a pass rush against 49ers QB Jimmy Garoppolo. San Francisco defeated Minnesota 27-10 to end the Vikings season.
"It was pretty cool. That was my first-ever career touchdown. Never got one in high school. Never got one in college. Being able to get one in L.A. is pretty neat. … I saw Danielle put in an excellent block. I was fortunate to score the touchdown but it was good, complementary football. Zimmer always harps on pursuit and effort, and that was quite the effort from Danielle and EK (linebacker Eric Kendricks)."
– Odenigbo on his scoop-and-score at Los Angeles
"It means a lot. I was kind of hoping that it would happen here. Because at the other places, I was like, 'Man, it could happen here, but it would be better if it was at home.' It just means a lot to come out here and do it in front of the people who helped me be the player I am today. Coach Andre Patterson, Coach [Rob] Rodriguez, they played a big role in [making me] the player that I am today. I'm just happy to be able to go out here and win the game with my teammates and achieve things with my teammates."
– Hunter after setting the record at home against the Lions
"They always see us in the same spot, and being able to switch it up and give them a different look, it really messed them up in the beginning. They made their adjustments, we made our adjustments, but I'm proud of our team, man. We fought."
– Griffen on moving inside with Hunter against the Saints