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2023 Vikings Position Recap: Defensive Line


EAGAN, Minn. — Six different defensive linemen started at least one game for the Vikings during the 2023 campaign.

In a season where "next man up" seemed to become the mantra, Minnesota's most durable contributor on the line's interior was Harrison Phillips, who returned for his second campaign in purple. Phillips started all 17 games for the Vikings and helped anchor a front in its first season under Defensive Coordinator Brian Flores.

Phillips recorded a career-high 3.0 sacks, surpassing his previous high of 1.5 that was set in 2022, and also established new career highs with 92 tackles and two passes defensed. In addition to making a difference on game days, Phillips was recognized for his off-field efforts when the Vikings named him their 2023 NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee.

Jonathan Bullard also returned for a second season with the Vikings, starting 14 of 17 games played. Against the Saints in Week 10, he recorded a strip sack of QB Derek Carr – just the second forced fumble of his career. Though the loose ball was recovered by New Orleans, it helped rattle Carr in a game Minnesota won 27-19.

View the best photos of Vikings defensive line during the 2023 season.

The Vikings added former Packers defensive lineman Dean Lowry last March, and the 29-year-old played nine games before suffering a pectoral injury at Denver that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. Lowry recovered a fumble against the 49ers, and Minnesota's offense responded with a drive capped by a Jordan Addison touchdown. Lowry's recovery helped the Vikings upset San Francisco on Monday Night Football.

Minnesota brought back Khyiris Tonga, T.J. Smith and Sheldon Day in 2023. Tonga contributed on defense and special teams. Defensively, he especially shined against the run and recorded a season-high six tackles against the Packers in Week 17.

Day and Smith spent most of the season on the Vikings practice squad. Day was signed to the active roster on Nov. 21, and Smith was elevated to the active roster for Weeks 17 and 18. A splash play for Day, a recovered fumble against Chicago in Week 12, was overshadowed by a 12-10 loss.

The Vikings last spring drafted Jaquelin Roy 141st overall out of LSU. Roy got his feet wet as a rookie, playing 96 defensive snaps and 59 on special teams, but did not handle a bulk of responsibility. Roy's most productive game occurred at Green Bay in Week 8, where he had three tackles and a quarterback knockdown of Jordan Love.

James Lynch suffered a torn ACL during an August training camp practice and spent the 2023 season on Injured Reserve.

Notable Numbers:

2 – Phillips' 92 tackles ranked second overall in the NFL among defensive linemen, trailing only Carolina's Derrick Brown (103).

644 – Bullard's defensive snaps played set a new season high for the lineman. His previous season high was in 2017, when he played 438 defensive snaps for the Bears.

74.3 – Tonga was the Vikings highest-graded interior lineman in tackling, per analytics site Pro Football Focus. His 74.3 grade ranked fourth among all Minnesota defenders. And although he played just 79 pass-rush snaps, it's still worth noting Tonga was the team's highest-graded interior lineman in such situations with a 70.4 from PFF.

3.76 and 98.7 — Minnesota limited opponents to 3.76 rushing yards per carry and 98.7 per game, ranking fourth and eighth in the NFL in those respective categories.

Regular-Season Statistics


Critical Play

The Vikings sacked Raiders QB Aiden O'Connell five times in Week 13. Of course, each takedown was important to Minnesota's eventual shutout of Las Vegas. But Phillips' third-down sack of O'Connell halfway through the fourth quarter proved a crucial play.

Phillips dropped O'Connell for a 3-yard loss, making it fourth-and-6 from the Raiders 35 and forcing a three-and-punt situation. With the game remaining scoreless, possession returned to the Vikings offense, which opted for QB Nick Mullens down the stretch after Joshua Dobbs had played to that point.

Mullens provided enough of a spark for Minnesota that with 2 minutes left in the game, the Vikings kicked a 36-yard field goal to seal a 3-0 win. Phillips' sack was the final of the day and played a significant role in the Vikings shutout on the road.

Early Low Point

The lowest point of the season for Minnesota's defensive line arguably was Week 2 at Philadelphia.

The Vikings went on the road and sought their first win of the season, but that wasn't in the cards after allowing the Eagles to rack up 430 yards – including a whopping 259 in the run game.

Philadelphia had just 171 passing yards, but it didn't matter as the NFC East team carved up Minnesota on the ground.

The Vikings gave up 175 rushing yards to RB D'Andre Swift on 28 carries, and QB Jalen Hurts also rushed 12 times for 35 yards.

Perhaps most disappointing for Minnesota was the three rushing touchdowns it gave up from inside the 5-yard line. Hurts ran in two touchdowns from the 1, and Swift added a 2-yard score late in the game.

The Vikings couldn't slow the Eagles and fell to 0-2 on the season after losing 34-28 on the East Coast.

View home and away photos of the Vikings 2024 regular season opponents.

2 Pressing Questions for 2024

  1. Will the Vikings re-sign Jonathan Bullard (or other free agents)?

Four of the Vikings eight defensive linemen are slated to become free agents at the beginning of the new league year.

Perhaps most notable of that group is Bullard, whom Minnesota signed as a free agent during the 2022 offseason.

Bullard, who will turn 30 in October, has bounced around a bit thus far but brings ample veteran experience and was a reliable presence throughout the 2023 campaign. If the Vikings don't re-sign Bullard, they'll need to consider replacing him in free agency or the NFL Draft, unless they feel strongly about a younger player already on the roster who can fill his shoes.

The other unrestricted free agent from Minnesota's defensive line room is Lynch. Tonga is a restricted free agent, which means he could have a tender placed on him that will allow the Vikings to match an offer sheet from another team or potentially receive draft-pick compensation. Smith is an exclusive rights free agent, meaning Minnesota has the option to re-sign him for another season at the league minimum.

  1. Can Minnesota generate more pressure on passers from the interior?

The Vikings were blitz heavy in their first season under Flores, but they might try to establish more pressure with their interior linemen going forward.

The group totaled 11 quarterback hits, and Next Gen Stats credited the group with 45 quarterback pressures.

Phillips led with 19 quarterback pressures (4.4 percent), but Tonga had the highest rate among defensive linemen (13.9 percent) with 11 pressures.