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New Week, New Rush Plan Likely for Vikings D-Line Vs. 49ers

EAGAN, Minn. — Reviewing the film — you know, the one where the Vikings pass rush delivers a virtuoso performance in a city famed for jazz — can wait.

Vikings players didn't bask in the footage from Minnesota's win over New Orleans on Sunday in the Wild Card round.

They know what's there — a convincing display by a unit that significantly affected future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees and an explosive offense — and are on a short week with a trip to top-seeded San Francisco on the docket.

Kickoff is 3:35 p.m. (CT) Saturday for the game that will air on NBC.

Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter each recorded three quarterback hits and 1.5 sacks, meeting at Brees to split Minnesota's first takedown of the day and force a field goal.

The rushers came from the edge of the line on that one. Later they kicked inside to the defensive tackle spots where they could use their quickness, strength and agility against Saints guards Andrus Peat and Larry Warford, who flanked rookie center Erik McCoy.

The duo responsible for more sacks (99.5 in regular-season games) than any other set of teammates in the NFL since Hunter's selection in 2015 also had the benefit of starting plays closer to Brees.

"We did what we had to do to win the game," the low-key Hunter said. "Whatever our game plan is, that's what we're going to go with.

"Everything happens quicker in the middle, whereas on the edge, you have to have time to build up your rush," the fifth-year player added.

The Vikings deployed the strategy at critical junctures of the game, and symphonic execution brought the idea to fruition.

Ifeadi Odenigbo, who has played defensive end and defensive tackle, gave a deeper explanation of the approach.

"It was huge because the two [Saints] tackles, [Terron] Armstead and [Ryan] Ramczyk, on paper, they hadn't given up a sack all year," Odenigbo said. "And the way that Drew Brees sets as a quarterback, one thing you've got to figure out as a d-end, a lot of times when you're rushing around the corner, nine yards is really the hot spot for where a quarterback is stepping back. Drew Brees steps back around six or seven yards, so from a d-line standpoint, we thought it was better to have our two best pass rushers, Danielle and Everson, rush from inside.

"When we did that, you could just tell that the center and guards were in shock because we hadn't shown that on film," Odenigbo added. "It was huge that they did that and worked out big-time throughout the game."

The approach is on film now for 49ers coaches and players to digest.

San Francisco Head Coach Kyle Shanahan was asked Tuesday if the success that the Vikings had with Griffen and Hunter on the inside adds to the preparation workload.

"No, that's something that doesn't surprise you. Teams do that a lot. I know they haven't done it much," Shanahan said. "They had whatever their reason was for doing it, and it was effective and helped them out, and we'll see where they are versus us.

"Regardless of where they are, there's five guys who can block them, and we'll see which one they'll put them in front of," he continued. "Those guys are a challenge wherever they're at – whether they're over the guards, the center or the tackles."

Like Odenigbo (and now Griffen and Hunter), Stephen Weatherly has rushed from the edge and interior this season. He said the defensive linemen look forward to learning each week's plan that has been designed according to the different challenges that passers present. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson and assistant defensive line coach Rob Rodriguez craft the plan and unveil it in a position meeting.

"When it looks as nice as it did last week, it was kind of tough, keeping it under wraps for as long as we did," Weatherly said. "As soon as we brought it out for the first time, the Saints had a lot to account for to try to figure it out.

"I don't know what it's going to be this week, but when we unveil it Saturday against the 49ers, hopefully we get some results like we did last week," Weatherly added.

One could go back to the dog days of training camp or even the offseason program before pads were donned for the first time in 2019 to see the concept being examined as a potential new wrinkle, but the use of Griffen and Hunter in the middle definitely caught the Saints guards, well, off-guard.

"We always played around with it throughout the whole year," said Jalyn Holmes, who recovered the fumble forced by Hunter on a sack. "It definitely was a great idea. Those are two amazing players, and they play well together. They study hard, prepare themselves. The best in the game, so it worked out for us."

The ball that Holmes collected on Tuesday rested in his locker at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center.

"It was a great feeling. At the moment, I was just thinking about grabbing the ball," Holmes said. "I'm glad I could do it and help the team get into a better position to win the game. I'm just glad that we're still fighting and on to San Francisco."

Niners QB Jimmy Garoppolo described the Vikings defense as talented and "very sound."

"They have their rules, and they stick to their rules," Garoppolo said. "[Head Coach Mike] Zimmer does a great job getting them in great plays, and they make it tough on offenses. That D-line, they're impressive. They'll get after you. So, it will be a good test for us."

In addition to creating pressure on Garoppolo this week, Minnesota also must slow down a San Francisco offense that ranked second in the NFL with 144.1 rushing yards per game.

Griffen has flourished since becoming a full-time starter in 2014 when Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards were hired, recording 57 of his 74.5 career sacks in an 88-game span.

"The coaching staff does a great job of putting us in the best position to go make plays," Griffen said. "I think that's what they did … the coaching staff did that. I feel like they're going to do the same thing this week. Put us in the best position to go make plays."

And if he's asked to shift inside again?

"You just react. How I train and stuff like that, how our coaches train … you just have to be ready for whatever they throw at you," Griffen said. "They say football is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical, and that's true. Right now we're at the 80-percent mental part, but we have to keep grinding and keep growing. We have to get ready to go into Levi's Stadium and win … that's our goal."

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