EDEN PRAIRIE –The weeks leading up to an NFL season can be a grind, but Justin Trattou has been reaping rewards.
Through three preseason games against the Bengals, Seahawks and Chargers, Trattou has played 127 snaps, leading all defensive linemen. He's totaled nine tackles, a forced fumble and 4.5 sacks, two of which came against San Diego on Sunday.
"That's the best feeling in the world," Trattou said. "All these practices, all these dog days, are for those Sundays when you can go out there and get sacks. That's the end goal."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer likes what he's seen from Trattou this offseason, whether in OTAs, training camp or on game days. Zimmer appreciates the versatility and depth that Trattou brings to the defensive line.
"JT has done a very nice job," Zimmer said. "We're moving him around a little bit in the nickel, he's playing in the run [well], he's been solid with everything he does."
Trattou's journey in Minnesota has been an unconventional one, landing on the waiver wire multiple times but never wavering in his approach. Since signing with the Vikings in October 2013 as a free agent, he's been waived on four different occasions, spent two stints – in 2013 and 2014 – on the practice squad and been on the active roster.
"If you keep working, fighting, keep trying to do your best, and stay in the right system and listen to the coaches, good things end up happening for you," Zimmer said. "I've been impressed with Justin."
Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson has worked with Trattou since 2014 and said he's incredibly proud of the way Trattou stays committed to his craft. Even when often considered the "odd man out," Trattou hasn't looked back.
"He comes in every year and works hard, and he gives you everything he has," Patterson said. "He competes every single day, and he's going to go do it the way that you coach him to get it done. As a coach, it makes you proud to see a guy go out there and see hard work pay off.
"If [more] players had Justin's 'want-to' and desire, a lot of players who think that they're great would really be great," Patterson added. "I think that's the thing that separates him from a lot of other guys."
Patterson, whom Trattou called "the best defensive line coach in the league," said Trattou hasn't ever considered giving up in a situation where some may have walked away. When faced with adversity, Trattou only wants to know one thing: how he can improve. After speaking with a coach, he takes the instruction to heart, returns to the playbook and the practice field, and gets back to work.
A native of Ramsey, New Jersey, Trattou credits his background for his tenacity.
"Going to high school, playing Jersey football, it taught me how to be tough," Trattou said. "I consider myself to be someone who always puts it on the line, and that's how it will be until the day I retire."
Trattou has never been one to let an opportunity pass him by. He managed to snag two interceptions in just 22 snaps played in 2015, despite missing time with an ankle injury. He was released in December and then re-signed a week later.
Now entering his fifth NFL season, Trattou believes his well-rounded skillset allows him to be a playmaker when given the chance, and he wants to continue improving his technique within the Vikings system.
"In Coach Zimmer's defense, if you play your technique, good things happen – whether it be sacks, turnovers, tackles for loss," Trattou said. "His defense, if you buy into it, you'll be successful."
One aspect of his game Trattou has specifically worked on with Patterson is effectively using his hands on the line.
"I don't want to give away any trade secrets," he said, laughing and then pausing for a moment to think. "Before I came to Minnesota, I really was just kind of going out there and freestyling it, but now I really have a plan with my hands, and it makes a big difference."
Trattou's focus on technique hasn't gone unnoticed, by coaches or by teammates. When he netted two sacks and a forced fumble against the Chargers Sunday, compatriots on the field and sideline alike celebrated right along with him, preseason or not.
"The whole d-line is all over him, because they see the hard work he puts in," Patterson said. "He's mapped out a role for himself that's appreciated by the team, and that speaks highly of the person that Justin is."
Defensive end Brian Robison has started 86 games over nine seasons in Minnesota and has seen a number of linemen come through the Vikings locker room. In his time spent with Trattou, Robison said he's seen dedication and significant improvement.
"He can do a lot of the things that I do as well, as far as a lot of moving parts in our defense and stuff like that," Robison said. "Over the last year or so, he's gotten much, much better at his techniques, and he's really shown that he has value on this team."
Both Patterson and Robison said Trattou offers a rotational option that allows the Vikings to plug in a replacement "without much drop-off" from the starting lineup. Trattou's commitment – and the subsequent recognition – has kept him with the team for three seasons, and he's excited to continue contributing in 2016.
Prior to joining the Vikings, Trattou played for the Giants. As a rookie in 2011, he was part of the New York Giants' squad that went all the way, winning Super Bowl XLVI.
"There's no better feeling than at the end of the season when you know you're the best," Trattou said. "I've never had anything in my life that could replicate that experience."
Returning to the field with a Vikings team that went 11-5 in the regular season, won the NFC North title and appeared in the playoffs, Trattou believes they have the talent to repeat all that and more.
"The ultimate goal is that ring," Trattou said. "The whole point of playing is to win the championship, and I think that this team gets that. That's our angle."