EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. —Linval Joseph, the mammoth Vikings nose tackle, has cemented himself as the man in the middle of Minnesota's defense against the run.
There's been plenty of Vikings men on the edge and places in between this season for a defense that is ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (78.7) and yards allowed per rush (3.23) through six games.
"Middle, edge, we try to be a whole unit, and this year out of all the four years, we're hitting it at a high cylinder," Joseph said. "We just have to keep it going."
After signing with the Vikings in 2014, Joseph has improved each season and positively affected teammates who have been rallying to the football. He said his greatest motivation is "my peers."
"To be honest with you, I do this because of them," Joseph said. "I love what I do, and I want to help this team win games. I know if we stop the run, we'll have opportunities to get on the quarterback, and that's what we're trying to do."
Joseph, who was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season, can take on — and even beat — a double team, or occupy two blockers to free up Vikings defensive linemen and linebackers in the middle of the field.
"There were a couple plays last week that are very indicative of his ability in there," Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said. "He draws attention because anytime they try to single block him and come off on that 'backer, he usually ends up getting off the block and making a play.
"A lot of times he requires two guys inside, which allows our linebackers to come down hill and play freer," Edwards added. "And I think that's a big credit to him because he's got great block awareness, great contact balance, and you know his motor runs 100 miles an hour. He's definitely drawing attention and a lot of double teams inside on the run for us."
Eric Kendricks leads Minnesota with 54 tackles (coaches' tally), and five other teammates have been credited with more than 35 tackles. Joseph, Anthony Barr and Andrew Sendejo have 40 each. Trae Waynes has 39, and Harrison Smith has 36.
Analytics site Pro Football Focus noted that Joseph has the most run stops of an interior defensive lineman:
Asked about Joseph's performance so far this season, Sendejo said, "It's always great to have guys in front of you that can ball."
"It's going to help you out even more, whether it's stopping them before they get to the second level, but a lot of what we do around here is preaching that if you do your job, you allow someone else to do their job," Sendejo added. "We all buy in, and that's what we do.
"I think we've got, in every position on the back end, the guys aren't scared to tackle," Sendejo added. "You don't always see defenses where the corners are willing to throw it up in there like our guys do, that can cover and tackle. That's part of your job. You have to be able to do both, depending on the call and what we've got going on that week defensively."
Terence Newman has 29 tackles, and Xavier Rhodes has added 22, illustrating the help that the secondary is providing when opponents try to run outside of the tackles.
"I think everybody has bought in to the fundamentals and the techniques of each call. Even to our corners," Edwards said. "They've come up and done a good job tackling out on the perimeter. Our guys up front really do a good job of getting separation off blocks and coming off making plays. Linebackers getting downhill, filling. It's a culmination of all three levels of the defense doing their job and doing it with the tempo and a mindset that we want to play with."
In numbers that include three kneel-downs a piece by Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford, opponents have 146 rush attempts. Out of those, 67 (45.9 percent) have gained 2 or fewer yards.
Minnesota has only allowed 36 of the 146 rush attempts (24.7 percent) to gain 5 or more yards and only six (4.1 percent) to gain 10 or more yards.
Detroit's Ameer Abdullah had the most success against the Vikings in the first six games. Abdullah totaled 94 yards on 20 carries (4.7 avg.) and was able to squeeze several yards after contact. The longest rush allowed by Minnesota this season occurred when Abdullah escaped to the outside for a 29-yard gain.
Last week against Green Bay, Minnesota didn't allow a run of 10 or more yards and limited the Packers to gains of 2 or fewer yards on 12 of 24 rush attempts.
The convincing performance against the run was with playing nickel defense the entire game, which Head Coach Mike Zimmer said was "the thing I probably like the best" about Sunday's effort.
"We didn't allow them to run the football into little guys," Zimmer said. "That helped tremendously. It helped us in some of the coverage aspects as well."
When asked about tackling, Zimmer also delivered a colorful line that was somewhat overshadowed by the rest of the day's events.
"I know everybody talked about [tackling] two weeks ago when we played Detroit," Zimmer said. "Tackling some of these running backs in space is like catching a chicken in a big yard. So, it's hard to do."
Everson Griffen, who leads the Vikings with 7.0 sacks and nine tackles for loss, was asked this week what he most likes about the Vikings defense and said, "Our attitude, our toughness. How we get to the ball, how we run to the ball. Our motor."
Minnesota has maintained a high degree of continuity on its defense, and Griffen said players have a wide-ranging trust that each teammate will perform his duty on every play.
" 'You cover your gap; I trust in you to cover your gap, I'm going to cover my gap,' " Griffen explained. "And that's how it works. You trust one another, going down the line, and that's what we did.
"I trust in Tom [Johnson] when he's playing 3-technique, that he's going to be in the B gap or if you get a power scoop, he's going to flatten him out. He trusts me when the tight end comes in to cut me off, I'm going to press to the outside shoulder and be in the C gap. And we trust LJ (Joseph) that he's going to set the wall right in the middle like he always does."
The collective effort has helped the Vikings climb the statistical rankings in rush yards per game and yards per rush in the past four seasons under Zimmer.
2014: 121.4 rush yards allowed per game (25th) | 4.32 yards allowed per rush (24th)
2015: 109.3 rush yards allowed per game (17th) | 4.25 yards allowed per rush (21st)
2016: 106.9 rush yards allowed per game (20th) | 4.24 yards allowed per rush (17th)
2017: 78.7 rush yards allowed per game (3rd) | 3.23 yards allowed per rush (3rd)