MINNEAPOLIS — For those who have followed the Vikings, it’s a little hard to believe that Danielle Hunter could still be under the radar.
Sunday’s performance in Minnesota’s 24-9 should solve that, even though the standout isn’t the type to seek attention.
Hunter racked up 3.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown in the victory, a performance that could easily win him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
There was plenty of praise in the Vikings locker room for Hunter, who turned 24 years old less than a week ago.
“Danielle is a great kid, No. 1,” Zimmer said. “A great kid; he works extremely hard.
“He goes to [Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson] every day and says, ‘What do I have to do to get better? What do I need to work on today?’ That’s just the kind of kid he is,” Zimmer added. “He’s a great teammate, a great team guy. It’s nice that he got some individual accomplishments today, but really, he’s more concerned how the team does and how the defense does.”
Added Vikings right tackle Brian O’Neill: “Hat’s off to him, but he earned it. That doesn’t happen by chance. That kid comes into to work every single day and continually tries to get better. That stuff isn’t an accident.”
Said Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen: “He’s a freak of nature … he looks like a superhero.”
Hunter, who set a career high in sacks, agreed that it was the best game of his life but deflected credit on a day when the Vikings racked up a franchise-record 10 sacks on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
“It’s not me alone,” Hunter said. “I have good teammates, good defensive linemen, and we go out and work together.”
Hunter was already having a career day when he helped ice the game for the Vikings midway through the fourth quarter.
Minnesota led 17-6 when Stafford scrambled to his right and tried to pitch the ball back to running back Kerryon Johnson.
The pigskin tumbled to the turf where Hunter picked it up and raced 32 yards for a score.
“Once he picked up the ball, I knew no one was going to catch him,” said Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly.
The defensive end received key blocks from Jaleel Johnson and Eric Kendricks for his second career touchdown. [Hunter also had a 24-yard fumble return for a touchdown in the 2016 season opener against the Titans].
“I was surprised,” Hunter said. “I was like, ‘Why would you pitch the ball?” But it worked out for us. I’m happy with that.”
There was no celebration from the mild-mannered Hunter, though.
“I was trying to catch my breath,” Hunter quipped. “And I had to be out there for the [extra point].”
Hunter already had 2.5 sacks at that point in the game, but added a final takedown to help the Vikings set a team record.
Hunter shared his first sack with Griffen just over midway through the second quarter, but then got one of his own on Detroit’s next offensive play.
He added another one roughly midway through the third quarter before his final one came just after the 2-minute warning in the final stanza.
Hunter became the second player with 3.5 or more sacks and a touchdown in a game since 1982, joining Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips.
Zimmer said Hunter’s ability to play more free, and think a little less, has helped contribute to what is shaping up to be a monster season for the defensive end.
“The biggest thing with Danielle, I mean Danielle is a great athlete,” Zimmer said. “Great length, strong, physical, but he’s improved on just being reactive.
“Not worrying about … a lot of young defensive linemen especially, because we harp on stopping the run, they’re nervous about ‘Hey, I’m going to take a chance here because I think this is a play-action pass,’ or something like that,” Zimmer added. “The thing I notice about Danielle, he just lets it rip now, and that’s what makes him good.”
Hunter now has 11.5 sacks on the season, which is one sack shy of the personal-best of 12.5 he set back in 2016. The 2015 third-round draft pick also has 37 career sacks, which is more than any other play from his draft class.
The youngster announced his presence to the Lions — and perhaps the rest of the league — with his dynamic performance Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But the best could be yet to come.
“He’s always been a baller … this is nothing new,” said Vikings defensive tackle Tom Johnson. “To be honest, he’s only going to get better.”