By: Lindsey Young
Danielle Hunter and Za'Darius Smith devised a plan.
The outside linebackers stood just inside the darkened tunnel, two towering silhouettes cutting through purple lights and swirling fog. And as they exited, they realigned to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
P.A. announcer Alan Roach announced the duo's name and numbers – 55 and 99, respectively – in his thundering voice, and Smith and Hunter sprinted alongside each other away from the hull of the smoke-breathing dragon ship.
Hunter gave full credit for the idea to Smith, a former Packer, who'd been especially amped for the Border Battle.
"We planned it all week, but for him to do that against his former team, it meant a lot to him," Hunter said. "I was right there with him."
The in-sync entrance demonstrated the relationship that's formed between Hunter and Smith and foreshadowed an afternoon in which each sacked Aaron Rodgers.
"They couldn't be more polar-opposite people but are so drawn to each other. They are always around each other, always talking, always working," Mike Smith said. "They're both, like, BFF right now. It's great to see."
The two first met in Orlando in January 2020, when they teamed together for the Pro Bowl and joked about the possibility of one day reuniting on a roster. Little did they know, that's exactly what would happen two-plus years later.
Smith has said on multiple occasions that an opportunity to play with Hunter factored into his free agency decision.
"I was talking to Coach before I came here and he was like, 'Z, we need you here.' And I said, 'Coach, I want to come. Is Danielle Hunter still there?' I gave Danielle a call before I even signed my contract and I told him – and he was so excited," Smith recalled.
Though it can be difficult to be a new face in a locker room, Smith wasted no time getting to know teammates not named Danielle.
Less than a month after signing with the Vikings, Smith organized an evening with defensive teammates at a Minnesota Timberwolves game, even providing a full dinner spread beforehand.
There may not be an obvious correlation between sharing a suite at the Target Center and NFL Sundays. And yet, Smith understands the importance of building camaraderie within the locker room.
"He knows about bringing a defense together, a team together, and it's not just in practice or here in the building – it's outside the building. He did the same thing in Green Bay, and I'm sure in Baltimore," Mike Smith said. "When these guys start spending time together, working together, that does [carry over] to game day. It goes back to communicating. You have trust in that person. Z's done a phenomenal job doing that."
Learning the Legacy
Beyond building rapport with his new teammates, Smith also acquainted himself with the team's history.
He toured the Minnesota Vikings Museum this spring and found himself especially enamored with "The Purple People Eaters," the famed pass rushers who came before him.
As Smith examined the sculpture of Jim Marshall, Alan Page, Gary Larsen and Carl Eller, he noted their lengthy supremacy in the league.
"I heard that each one of them on the line went to the Pro Bowl in the same year," Smith said. "They were dominant during their career, and they were just great players. I know when I come here, it's time for us to be dominant again in those same situations – how it was before."
As Smith and the rest of Minnesota's current front aspire to dominate in a similar fashion, the first-year Viking is tipping his cap to the Purple People Eaters by adopting their motto: "Meet at the quarterback."
The original phrase, coined by the group, challenged teammates to pressure the passer on every play.
Smith has shared photos of Hunter and himself on various occasions, oftentimes captioning the image with "Meet at the Quarterback 2.0."
Page, who along with Eller is part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, said it's "nice to be recognized as having been a part of the foundation of the team."
He also hopes Smith, Hunter and their teammates will add to Vikings history, not only mirror it.
"It's important to recognize the past and honor that and to want to continue it, but it's also important to create your own legacy," Page said. "This is my two cents' worth: it's easy to get mired in the past and forget that you have the ability to create your own future – while honoring the past. Building on it."
Page remains a vital part of the Minnesota community, and he isn't a stranger around Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.
When he visits a team practice or represents Vikings Legends at a community event, Page often has the opportunity to speak with current players – especially fellow defensive linemen and pass rushers.
"They don't need my advice," Page quipped. "It's mostly conversational."
But Hunter and Smith, who met Page for the first time at Vikings Training Camp in July, still will glean anything they can from the greats.
Hunter said it's meaningful that Legends take the time to connect with and support the current team.
"It really helps having them around because you can go and pick their brains. I know it's different back then than it is now, but there are certain tips you might learn from them that might still apply to this age [of the game]," Hunter said. "The biggest thing I always get from all of them is about effort.
"And they know how to get to the quarterback," he added. "That's two things they all have in common. They all have different styles, but it's all about the effort and finding a way how each could best get to the quarterback."
Mike Smith appreciates the way "D and Z" dig into the team's roots.
The former Ravens linebacker (2005-06) reiterated that young players always can learn something from NFL Legends.
"Every once in a while, we'll throw in a 2-minute YouTube video on Deacon Jones and watch a little thing on him. Or Lawrence Taylor. And you can see Z's eyes light up – a lot of guys' in the room," Mike Smith said. " 'Why are those guys great? What do they do to make them great – on the field and off the field? How was their mindset? How were they thinking?' I think it's good for the players.
"And then the more film that you watch, it makes you a better football player. Z, he's always watching film. So is Danielle," Smith added. "If it's in the offseason, it's certain rushers – old rushers, new rushers – I try to keep those guys' iPads full of different things to keep them busy. Just watching football."
Looking back over Vikings history, Hunter and Smith don't take their adoption of the slogan for granted.
"Those are big shoes to fill," Hunter said.
A wearer of size 16 cleats himself, Hunter of course isn't speaking literally but rather understands the magnitude of their goals.
"Those are guys who have been Vikings Legends in the Ring of Honor for a long time," he said. "So Z brought that up. It's something that he's been trying to be part of for the longest time.
"Here in Minnesota we're known to have a good front four over the years, so it means a lot for him to be able to come over here and be a part of it," Hunter continued. "To me, it means a lot, also. Our front has been up to the standard, and it's definitely something that we're trying to keep moving forward."
Of course it's early in the season, but Hunter and Smith are doing their best to make sure that happens.
The duo has combined for 3.0 sacks and five quarterback hits through their first two games together. They play a massive role in Minnesota's defense, which is implementing a 3-4 base scheme for the first time since 1985, led by new Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell.
Mike Smith noted that Za'Darius Smith has been a perfect fit for this Vikings system.
"For what we do on defense and how we use him, how we like to use big rushers and move them across the line, he's a big part of what we do in that type of scheme," the coach said.
And while Hunter is newer to the 3-4, he's made the transition relatively smoothly.
Hunter has grown accustomed over his first seven seasons, as a defensive end opposed to outside linebacker, to almost always rushing from the edge. Now, he's being challenged to move around much more.
And it's paying off.
"He's seeing the benefit of rushing inside and rushing over slower guards. Plus, you're closer to the quarterback. I think the other day he was saying … 'I have to get there a lot quicker, because when Z's inside, he gets there quick.' He's starting to feel that and starting to love rushing inside," Mike Smith said. "It's such a matchup-driven league – putting my best on your worst is a big thing that I do. I would say that's been a little bit of an adjustment for him, rushing more inside.
"And then obviously the dropping [back] stuff was new for him," Smith added. "But he's such a great athlete and a student of the game. That stuff comes pretty quick to him."
Since being drafted in 2015, Hunter has made his talent clear to opposing offenses around the league.
Adding Smith to the mix simply enhances the recipe.
"He taught us a lot of stuff about setting up moves … and I taught him a lot of stuff about using his leverage," Hunter said. "I've definitely learned a lot from him about setting stuff up, especially on the inside. It's kind of like, 'You teach me, I teach you.' "
It's clear the Vikings have one of the league's most dominant pass-rushing pairs.
Vikings Offensive Coordinator Wes Phillips spent all spring and summer watching his players practice against Hunter and Smith.
Having a healthy Hunter back on the field automatically upgrades Minnesota's defense, and Smith being on the other side — or anywhere — gives opponents an even tougher challenge, especially considering their ability to play in different spots.
"You don't always know where they're at. There are some rushers where, 'Hey, he's going to be on the open side and we can kind of count on where he's at and have a plan for that,' whereas, you've got two edge guys, it always makes it more difficult," Phillips explained. "Are you chipping both sides, and how does that affect the rest of their pressure package? They can also bring other people. They can use guys like them to get the protection to slide a certain way and get other guys opportunities to get free.
"Those guys have been phenomenal," Phillips continued. "Seeing Danielle as a standup player and actually seeing that presence out there, that length and athletic ability, I think people, not that they haven't recognized what a player he is, but with his ability to play on the edge as a standup player, people are really going to feel him this year. I'm excited about it."
View photos from the Vikings-Packers 2022 season opener on Sept. 11 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
As the 2022 Vikings campaign continues, Page is already liking what he's seeing from Hunter and Smith. Whether on the field, out to dinner or in the tunnel at U.S. Bank Stadium, the connection between them is clear.
Page believes it will pay dividends.
"You work together, you bring yourselves together, so that you can trust the person next to you. You know and understand who they are and what they can do and where they'll be on a given play," Page said. "And within that context, each of the individuals striving to be as good as they can be, that's when it comes together."