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Henry Thomas on 2016 Vikings Defense: 'It's Unbelievable'

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Henry Thomas believes the Vikings defense is the real deal.

"The defense is unbelievable," Thomas told during a visit to Winter Park for alumni weekend earlier this month. "It surpassed what I thought."

As a former standout defensive tackle himself, Thomas recognizes talent when he sees it.

Thomas played for the Vikings from 1987-1994. During that span, he racked up 640 tackles, 56 sacks, two interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. He received Pro Bowl nods after his performance in the 1991 and 1992 seasons and was later named one of the 50 Greatest Vikings.

Now looking at Minnesota's current team, Thomas said he had expected the defense to be strong this season, but he's been impressed nonetheless. He's focused mainly on the defensive line and said there is an immense amount of talent there.

As of Week 5 when Minnesota defeated Houston to enter the bye week 5-0, the Vikings defensive line ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL with 17.0 sacks for 132 yards. The unit ranked fourth overall in total tackles with 77, behind the Dolphins (93), Giants (89) and Bengals (85).

"They have a great group," Thomas said. "The thing that really stands out is that they're learning their techniques.

"But it's exceeded anything I thought it was," he added. "These first few games have been unbelievable."

Thomas enjoyed the opportunity to attend a Vikings practice along with other alumni. Afterward, he reunited with Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson, and the two exchanged old stories and thoughts on Patterson's current group.

Despite their obvious connections to the purple and gold, Thomas and Patterson actually met outside of Vikings territory, when Patterson assumed his first NFL coaching role with New England in 1997.

As Thomas' NFL career would begin to wind down, Patterson's was just beginning. When the coach joined the Patriots as a defensive assistant, Thomas had already played eight seasons for the Vikings and two with the Lions.

"I was blessed to coach Hank," said Patterson. "He might think that I taught him things, but he taught me a lot of stuff. I was a young first-year coach in the NFL, and he knew all the secrets. So I would snuggle up to him all the time: 'Tell me what you see. Why do you do this? Why do you do that?' So a lot of stuff that I teach, I stole from this guy."

Thomas laughed, nodding along as Patterson reminisced.

"A year later, I wind up being with the Vikings [in 1998]," Patterson continued. "So I came here and ended up coaching Johnny [Randle] and those guys. A lot of that stuff that I stole from Hank, I still use today."

It seems things have come full circle.

Talk to any one of the eight defensive linemen on Minnesota's roster this season, and they'll hand credit to Patterson, who also thanks Thomas. Patterson's players appreciate his coaching style that uniquely addresses each one's individual skillset. Thomas said it's an important concept to have as a coach.

"Some guys aren't speed rushers. Some guys aren't going to have the corner, but you've got the ability to get up field and get underneath it, or you've got the ability to do a double move on them," Thomas explained. "You have to hone that up, because if a guy doesn't have speed around the corner, you can't teach him speed around the corner."

Thomas said a good coach will find a player's strength and help develop it.

"We like to say, 'We put the tools in the toolbox for you to use. We'll get you a little bit more and a little bit more based on what you do well,' " Thomas said.

Patterson often talks about the depth in the defensive line room, and Thomas echoed the importance of having multiple options at a position. Shamar Stephen has played well while stepping in for the injured Sharrif Floyd, joining a three-man rotation with Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson to provide different looks depending on opponent and offense. Danielle Hunter also has rotated with Brian Robison and Everson Griffen, and all three have 4.0 sacks this season.

Thomas joked that he didn't know how Patterson got his players to buy in to the concept of rotating in and out of the line.

"We'd get mad to get pulled off the field," Thomas said. "Especially if we were winning, I'd be like, 'Man, we aren't getting off. They're about to throw the ball.' "

Patterson responded with a laugh, "You just have to kind of lay the groundwork."

The foundation Patterson has built in Minnesota is working.

From the 21-year-old Hunter to Brian Robison in his 10th season, Thomas said he recognizes the abilities each of the Vikings defensive linemen possesses and how they all work together to find success.

Thomas is a self-proclaimed fan of Robison's, who lives near Thomas in Texas. The former defensive tackle said he admires the way Robison has embraced evolving roles over the past two seasons, sometimes moving inside to play tackle instead of end in different situations.

"When you're a player with the skillset B-Rob has, you get a little older, and some of those change," Thomas said. "To move inside is like, 'I have another opportunity.' For him to have that attitude, you can't stop a guy like that.

"Most guys will say, 'Oh man, I'm not that guy,' but he embraces it," Thomas added. "He sees it as another opportunity to do something better. And it shows."

In addition to veteran performance, Thomas is excited by the young players on the line, as well. He said he especially appreciates watching Hunter on the field.

"Danielle loves the game," Thomas said. "That's what I see when he's out there. He wants to learn it, and he wants to be the best at it. You can see it when he plays, and that's what I'm excited about. You can do anything you want with a guy like that. You can mold him into something really great."

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