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NOTEBOOK: Varied Vikings Threats Freeing Up Blitzers

EAGAN, Minn. — The Vikings 47 sacks this season already are the most by a Minnesota squad under Head Coach Mike Zimmer, and two games remain in the regular season.

The first is at Detroit at noon (CT) Sunday against a Lions squad that surrendered 10 sacks to the Vikings in a 24-9 Minnesota victory at U.S. Bank Stadium on Nov. 4.

The 10-spot is a Vikings single-game record that was nearly matched this past week when Minnesota racked up nine, including eight in the second half, in a 41-17 win over Miami.

The other component of Minnesota’s 47 sacks that are leading the NFL in 2018 is the fact that eight Vikings have 3.0 or more, which is double the four players with at least 3.0 in each of the past two seasons. (Six Vikings had 3.0 or more in 2015, and seven did so in 2014).

Defensive end Danielle Hunter, who was voted in to his first Pro Bowl, is leading the way with 14.5, which is tied for second in the NFL. After that, defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson each have 4.5. Defensive end Everson Griffen also has 4.5, and Stephen Weatherly, who filled in during Griffen’s absence and rotates with starters, has 3.0.

The line is continuing the proud heritage of Rushmen with the Vikings, and Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards are capitalizing from the amount of attention that teams pay to the defensive line to give blitzers freer runs to quarterbacks.

“We have smart players on defense, so typically when we can show one blitz and run another or vice versa or different things,” Zimmer said. “There’s certain things we’re trying to do in the blitz package that we’re trying to affect the offense.

“There were a couple, maybe four or five [against Miami] that we haven’t really shown much of,” Zimmer said. “It’s part of the game plan, just seeing what we feel like what we can do and how we can attack certain players. Sometimes it’s just, ‘We’re going to do this blitz so that we can throw some of these chips off the defensive ends.’ ”

The Vikings have several players who can attack from multiple spots on the field, creating mysteries that teams must solve in real time when setting their protection.

Cornerback Mackensie Alexander has 4.0 sacks, and the Vikings have gotten three apiece from safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Anthony Barr.

Smith has a franchise record among defensive backs with 12 in his career. The four-time Pro Bowler’s threat as a blitzer and other talents have been well-established.

Asked specifically about Stafford, whom the Vikings have sacked 34 times in nine games since Zimmer’s hire in 2014, Smith said, “I don’t know, I think sometimes we’ve had good games.

“Coaches put us in some good situations to get pressure,” Smith said. “There’s also been games where he’s made plays in the pass game. I remember two or three years ago when he made a couple escapes on third-and-longs that kind of determined the outcome of the game. He’s one of those guys you have to keep your eye on.”

Alexander has recorded all four of his sacks in 2018, setting a franchise single-season record among defensive backs. He had one against Detroit and another against Miami, taking advantage when he was a free runner.

Asked about Alexander’s effectiveness at getting sacks, Zimmer quipped, “Well he should. He doesn’t get blocked.

“Somebody told me he set a record or something,” Zimmer added. “If you don’t get blocked he should have an asterisk by that name.”

Jokes aside, Alexander gets to quarterbacks fast.

Alexander said “play call, speed, timing, knowing when to go and when to show,” all play a part in blitzing effectively” as well as not letting the excitement for the upcoming opportunity to allow the Vikings to show their hand.

“I think it’s a number of things, what we’ve got up front, obviously, and then you’ve got Harry on the other side, Anthony,” Alexander said. “Everybody is just playing well, and we have a presence that they’ve got to pick somebody up, make a decision and go. It comes down to our staff, too, making great calls and everybody making plays as a unit, so it’s a fun thing.”

Barr has recorded all three of his sacks this season in the past two weeks and turned in the first multi-sack game of his career against the Dolphins. The linebacker usually receives plenty of attention from opposing teams.

“Yeah, always extra attention,” Barr said. “I think the protection turns to me a lot, and that allows other people to get matchups — favorable matchups — so I’m all for that. It kind of is what it is. The scouting report is out, so teams know what we like to do and what I do well, so we try to combat that.”

Hunter, who has bested his previous career high of 12.5, said he likes when the Vikings are able to give an opponent’s offensive line an “extra problem” with a blitzer.

“We’ve got us up front, and then we’ve got Barr,” Hunter said. “Sometimes they’ll focus on us five, and Mackensie comes out free. We’ve got guys on all levels that can go out there and are able to rush the quarterback.”

Weatherly said Vikings defensive linemen do what they can to make sure a blitzer is successful and then try to get in on the action.

“When we call a blitz, everyone else just does their job,” Weatherly said. “Some people’s job is to open up lanes for other guys to come through. Some guys are meant to do other things.

“When a blitz is called, everybody gets excited because more than likely, it’s supposed to hit home. We hope it hits home; that’s why we called it,” he added. “So we’re looking for a big play, and everyone’s trying to get there to at least get a half of it or just lay on it and get a little something-something on top of that.”

Favre’s Influence

Vikings Interim Offensive Coordinator Kevin Stefanski participated in a media session Thursday after helping Minnesota score a season-high 41 points on Sunday.

Stefanski has held various roles since he was first hired in 2006 as an assistant to former Head Coach Brad Childress and talked last week about how previous influences have shaped his philosophy.

Stefanski was promoted to assistant quarterbacks coach in 2009 and held the role until he moved to coaching tight ends for two seasons (2014-15). He coached running backs in 2016 and returned to the quarterback room in 2017.

All of that background info is so we can mention that he coached Brett Favre during the Hall of Famer’s two seasons in Purple.

Stefanski was asked about Favre and said, “We don’t have enough time for Favre stories.”

“Brett was a great player here for a couple years. It was great for me as a young coach being in that room, the quarterback room, for the first time and seeing how he operates,” Stefanski said. “But what I appreciate most about Brett, and I’ve told our quarterbacks this, is he was a great teammate.

“He was a great to his teammates, both by just being himself and then on game day you just saw how important it was to him, how hard he works,” Stefanski added. “That was one thing I will always take with me just about how you lead a team and how you are a great teammate to the guys around you.”

Injury reports

For the Vikings: Eric Kendricks (hamstring) and Linval Joseph (added to the report with a knee injury on Thursday) did not practice. Chad Beebe (hamstring), David Morgan (knee) and Mike Remmers (low back) were limited. Kevin McDermott (elbow) was a full participant.

For the Lions: Damon Harrison, Sr., (ankle), Charles Washington (hamstring) and Don Muhlbach (calf) did not practice. Jamal Agnew (knee), Nick Bellore (ankle), Bruce Ellington (hamstring), Kenny Golladay (chest), Devon Kennard (hip) and Matthew Stafford (back) were limited. Marcus Cooper, Sr., (back) and Rick Wagner (concussion) were full participants.

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