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Michael Pierce: Jazz-Loving 'Juggernaut' Finding New Opportunities with Vikings

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It was 5:15 in Cincinnati, and Michael Pierce couldn't sleep.

The Vikings defensive tackle woke up not because of an alarm clock, nor a requested or errant wake-up call by the hotel room phone.

There was no bombardment of a siren with an enhanced echo as it bounced between tall buildings in urban landscapes.

Just a man who was excited to make his Vikings debut — at last.

While Vikings players in Week 3 played in front of fans at U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time in a regular-season game in 637 days, Pierce hadn't suited up in 2020 after signing as a free agent. He opted out last season because of COVID-19 concerns and had last donned pads for a game that counted on Jan. 11, 2020, as a member of the Baltimore Ravens.

One year, eight months and two days later (611 rotations of Earth), he was raring to go long before it was go time.

"Wide awake. I was wired," Pierce said. "I didn't realize it had been 600 days since I had played my last game. My nerves were through the roof. I was excited. There was nowhere to go. I just kind of calmed myself down, made some use of my time, went back through all of my notes."

The native of Daphne, Alabama, which is on the Gulf Coast across the bay from Mobile, turned to jazz music, prayer and the notes he had written down in preparation for facing the Bengals.

Pierce recorded 2.0 sacks later that day after entering Week 1 with 3.5 in his career.

The first sack occurred on a "snatch and over."

"A simple move, but it's like having that freedom of two ways to go," Pierce said. "When you line up [squarely] on somebody, they don't know if you're going left or right. I started with a jab, tried to snatch him over toward my left and came back over toward my right. I was like 'The Red Sea is parting.' Coming down the barrel, you're kind of running full-speed 'Don't miss.' "

It was followed by alternating his hands to rub his belly before using both to kiss to the sky.

The first part was a tribute to B.J. Raji, the former Packer whom Pierce said he "stole a lot of moves from."

"I know Vikings fans won't be glad to hear that, but he was a really good nose guard and got sacks and pressures on the quarterback," Pierce said. "I studied a lot from him and from a lot of different people. He was one of my favorites."

The second part? "That's to Jesus, 'Thank you for letting me make it back out here.' "

Pierce described his next sack, which occurred in overtime, as "olé."

"We ran a blitz, and I was actually kind of misaligned a little bit, so I just tried to put my body back in the gap," Pierce said. "He over-lunged, and thank God I've got a little quickness in me. I hit a little olé, and the only thing I was thinking about was 'Close, and don't miss.' We got him on the ground, and they ended up having to punt. It was probably the biggest play I've made in my life. I was super happy about that one."

He celebrated his second sack by running from the 34-yard line to the 9 — not that he was counting.

"That was just joy, man. I was happy. I've done that after a couple of plays I've made," Pierce said. "It's just my gratitude for being on the field and me thanking God for letting me be out there."

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Pierce has been part of the Vikings efforts to create interior pressure on passers in the past two games at Arizona and against Seattle, and it could lead to more residuals for the entire defense.

"I think it always helps you when you can get quick, inside pressure, because that's the fastest route to the quarterback, right up the middle," Vikings Assistant Head Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator Andre Patterson said. "Hopefully he's going to take this and build upon it. I told [media members] way back at the beginning, after I saw him rush for the first time, that he can rush. 'Don't let anybody tell you that you can't.'

"And hopefully having a two-sack day, really, it was close to 2.5 sacks, that he sees himself as a pass rusher, too. And that's a big part of it," Patterson said. "You've been a run-stopper your whole life, and you sort of think that that's just your value. I've got to continue to get him to believe that his value is bigger than that. Because he can do that – and he proved it on tape. I mean, those were quick wins.

"Those weren't, like, bull-rushing, power-rushing the guy back and then falling. Those were quick wins at the line of scrimmage, and it's been a while since I've had a d-tackle that could do that," Patterson added. "So I just have to get him to continue to build on that and believe that's a part of him and that's a part of his game."

Pierce said it's nice to have such opportunities here. He wasn't really tasked with that during his days with the Ravens, who brought the brunt of their fury with some talented edge rushers.

He recorded his first career sack against the Browns in his second pro game, but more important to the player who's never been on an NFL squad with a losing record? He helped Baltimore go 6-1 in seven games against Cleveland.

The revitalized Browns franchise leans heavy on its running attack, and Pierce, who landed on the injury report Thursday as limited with an elbow/shoulder combination, knows the challenge that Cleveland running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt present.

Notes and a nickname

Pierce's mom is from New Orleans, about 155 miles to the west of Daphne and the birthplace of jazz music. His father found it the best music — "all the old-school stuff" — when the family was taking care of household chores on Saturday mornings.

"He played it throughout the week, too, but it just kind of got engrained in me and was something I fell in love with," Pierce said.

The enjoyment of listening to music prompted Pierce to purchase a baby grand piano and start with a few simple songs back home in Alabama.

"You can't really move that, so I'm kind of, with me being new here and taking on more of a leadership role, I want to spend more time with my teammates" Pierce said. "I've got a puppy, so I'm going to put the piano down until the offseason."

Shameless plug: Pierce's standard poodle, Princeton, will be featured in an upcoming installment of Purple Pups.

Pierce said one of his favorite athletes all-time was Kobe Bryant, who tragically died on Jan. 26, 2020, just 15 days after Pierce's final game with the Ravens. It was less about the Mamba mentality and more about the off-field interests and influences Bryant developed.

"Just to hear growing up how he'd talk passionately about art, it just let me know that no matter what job you have, you can have other interests, and it doesn't have to be the most macho thing," Pierce said.

"I love lifting weights and all of this stuff, but I also like going to art galleries and hearing live music. Live music down South is everything," Pierce added. "Having that influence and expanding my mind and traveling the world, all of that stuff plays a role in who I am now. I love it. Kobe Bryant, rest in peace, of course, but just to hear how he kind of relayed different things to his sport was cool. It let me know I can do the same."

View photos of the Vikings 53-man roster as of Oct. 19, 2021.

Pierce has been a little reserved in his exploration of Twin Cities landmarks because of the pandemic. The Guthrie Theater's architecture caught his eye, and he's heard about concerts that have returned to The Armory. He'll likely visit some museums in the spring and is open to suggestions.

In the meantime, he's making bonds and breaking bread with teammates, including defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson, who joined Minnesota this offseason. They managed to hit up brunch with their significant others during an off-day of training camp.

The two quickly connected through mutual friendships of Pierce's high school teammates who had played at Alabama with Tomlinson, who grew up just south of Atlanta. Pierce had teamed with Ryan Anderson and T.J. Yeldon.

"Oh yeah, that's my guy. We're pretty much like brothers now," Tomlinson said. "I knew I was going to be good friends with him because I love Ryan to death."

Tomlinson is a big video gamer. Pierce isn't, but they've enjoyed humor and off-field conversations between helping Minnesota's defense take shape for 2021 and beyond.

"He's funny, man. And we have a lot of things in common, but some we don't," Tomlinson said. "We're always talking about architecture or houses or cars, stuff like that. We always send each other nice houses we find on Instagram and say like, 'Have you seen this architecture or the glass they have on the roof of this house right here?' He's just super cool."

All of it adds to the completeness of the 6-foot, 340-pound Pierce, who received his nickname, "The Juggernaut," from former Ravens edge rusher and Minneapolis native Terrell Suggs.

"I was an undrafted rookie at the back of every line, doing the undrafted rookie thing. I made a couple of plays, and Terrell Suggs noticed me, actually before my coach," Pierce explained. "He's a real big Marvel fan, real big movie guy, so he just nicknamed me The Juggernaut. I was just running through people, and it kind of stuck."

Suppose when someone who has a good nickname (Suggs' is T-Sizzle) is in charge of giving a nickname, the recipient is in good hands. Pierce has the Marvel character tattooed on his right calf, a sign of approval and a reputation to uphold with fierceness on the field.

"That's definitely a mentality I take pride in, so whoever lines up in front of me, I just kind of try to see through them to the running back, and now to the quarterback as well," Pierce said. "It's a mentality you've got to have as a nose guard as well. It means a lot to me. I've got it tattooed right here. I love it. I was a comic book guy, too, but just to have a [likely] Hall of Famer give me a nickname meant the world."

Chatting folks up — new teammates, members of the media, fans and the general public — has always come naturally to Pierce, who mentioned he "used to get in trouble in elementary school for talking all of the time."

"I had to get that out of my system in the school zone, but I just try to enjoy life. I like to meet new people. You can always find something in common with whoever," Pierce said. "We're all human. We've all got the same daily walk to some extent. … The more approachable you are, the better you can lead when it's time to get stuff done."

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