MANKATO, Minn. —Stop the run, put opponents in passing situations, get after the quarterback.
The blueprint has been standard and successful for the Vikings defensive line under Head Coach Mike Zimmer.* *
Shamar Stephen, a seventh-round pick in 2014, was initially drafted out of Connecticut because of his strength against the run, but the 26 year old is working diligently on his pass rush, trying to turn little things into big plays under the tutelage of defensive line coach Andre Patterson and assistant Robert Rodriguez.
In 37 games and 19 starts, Stephen has recorded 112 tackles (coaches' tally), a tackle for loss, 17 quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. He's still searching for his first sack in the pros, but that could come this season.
"I feel like I've grown a lot," Stephen said Monday. "I'm working on the little things, rushing off the edge, making sure I'm downhill on my rush and stuff like that, making sure I don't let them attack my inside pad, my inside number, so working the little details makes a big improvement for me."
Zimmer said he's seen improvements from Stephen on pass plays through a refinement of technique.
"He's getting better in the pass rush," Zimmer said. "I think he's understanding things more. He's not a guy that's a quick-twitch guy. He's going to have to be great in technique and then have to be really good with his hands."
Stephen recorded 51 tackles (coaches' tally) in his debut season, finishing second among Vikings rookies behind Anthony Barr. Stephen played in all 16 games that season and made three starts but only appeared in the first five games of 2015 before landing on Injured Reserve.
He returned to the lineup last season and started all 16 games alongside Linval Joseph. The two would work the middle on early downs, and the Vikings would slide Brian Robison from defensive end to join Tom Johnson as the defensive tackles in Minnesota's nickel rush unit.
Stephen totaled career highs of 57 tackles and 10 quarterback hurries last season. This offseason, the Vikings have paired Joseph and Johnson with the first team, and Stephen has worked with the second unit.
The Vikings have practiced in full pads each of the past two days and will do so again on Monday before a day off Tuesday. Then, the team will have four more days of padded practices, capping the run Saturday night.
The presence of pads has allowed the Vikings to add a period of 1-on-1 pass rush drills. Stephen has matched up with centers Nick Easton and Pat Elflein each of the past two days. Easton and Elflein have shared reps with the first team, and guard Alex Boone has watched the matchups.
Boone said Stephen might not get the full credit he deserves on a defensive line that's loaded with talent.
"Shamar is legit," Boone said. "That's one of the guys that I think a lot of people sleep on, but he's probably one of the better d-linemen we have."