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Tom Johnson: Zimmer Pushing Vikings Defensive Line to be 'Physical, Nasty, Aggressive'

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. –The Vikings defense has a game plan for Week 1 against the Titans Sunday, but they also have a plan for the entirety of the season.

"We know we want to be aggressive, we want to be physical, and we want to go out there and try to execute," defensive tackle Tom Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson said the unit's goal is to be the best defensive line in the NFL, and he feels he and his teammates are well on their way.

"It's evolved," Johnson said. "Guys have been here for three years now. [Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer] has pretty much told us, 'OK, this is what we're going to do.' Everybody feels comfortable doing it, so now it can really evolve into something great, and guys can buy into it and excel in the areas where they can excel."

Minnesota is returning all four of its starters on the defensive line for the third consecutive season, in addition to Johnson and two other players who hold rotation roles. Second-year defensive end Danielle Hunter is the only player who joined the group in 2015.

Defensive Coordinator George Edwards said he largely credits the unit's success to its longevity. He said all of the linemen understand the techniques and what is expected of them on the field against the run and the pass.

"They really lean on one another, they really work well together, and they work hard," Edwards said. "It kind of starts with them up front, and they do a great job of taking pride [in] that and approaching it that way every day, not just on Sundays."

Edwards is working with the defense this week specifically in preparation for the Titans, whose second-year quarterback, Marcus Mariota, is known to be a mobile player who can get out of the pocket and make deep throws.

Know the Tennessee Titans key contributors on offense, defense and special teams heading into the Vikings-Titans game Sunday.

Johnson said Mariota is a smart player who demands extra attention and precision from the defense to shut him down.

"He's [going] to try to find a mismatch and try to get to it," Johnson said. "So, we're going to have to contain him like you do Russell [Wilson], like you do Cam [Newton], all those kinds of guys. Once we do that, put him in a bad situation, he has to actually stay in the pocket and feel the pressure."

When planning for a quick-moving quarterback, Edwards said the game plan allows for a little less freedom than the defensive line might usually have.

"We can't bust things, we can't turn guys loose, because [Mariota's] mobile enough that he can stay alive and deliver the ball down the field," Edwards said. "So from that aspect, I think it's a combination of them understanding what we expect as far as a rush plan from them and the different things we're trying to do to put pressure on him."

The season opener will prove a good first test for the Vikings defensive line as it looks to contain Mariota and tandem running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, as well. Johnson said it's important to have a physical mindset.

Of 32 NFL teams, Minnesota has the eighth-lightest (average pounds per player) starting defensive line. Linval Joseph swings the numbers a bit with his 329-pound frame, but the four starters – Joseph, Floyd, Everson Griffen and Brian Robison – weigh in at 1,172 total pounds, averaging out to 293 pounds per player.

They are lighter than most teams they face this season, with the exception of the Cowboys, Eagles and Jaguars, who also each play a 4-3 scheme. Smaller or not, the Vikings linemen have proven plenty effective. 

"Guys look at our size and think, 'OK, those guys probably aren't as big, so we can probably double-team them and try to get them out of their game," Johnson said. "But, Zim's been pushing us to be physical, be nasty, be aggressive, and that's what we're trying to do.

"Once we do that, we get guys in a position they don't want to be in," Johnson continued. "Then [we can] stop the run and really do what we want to do – that's to get at the quarterback, pass rush, make sacks."

When Minnesota lost Teddy Bridgewater to a season-ending knee injury, Zimmer made it clear that teammates share responsibility to pick up the slack. The Vikings camaraderie on defense could help compensate.

"If you're looking at the guy next to you and you've been playing with him so long that you can easily play off of him, it's not so much thinking about it," Johnson said. "It's just reacting to things, and that's what we're getting to right now. I think this year is the year you'll see a lot out of it."

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