With Verizon Vikings Training Camp set to open next week (Friday, July 26 is the first scheduled public practice open to the public), the Vikings.com writing staff is doing a Training Camp Primer series this week to take deeper looks at offseason topics that likely will be answered in camp practices and the preseason.
Tuesday: How Might 1 Change on Line Affect Vikings Defense?
Wednesday: How Can the O-line Shape Minnesota’s Offensive Identity?
Thursday: After Thielen & Diggs, Receivers Will Try to Separate from Pack
Friday: Special Teams to Feature Competitions for Positions & Roster Spots
EAGAN, Minn. — Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph and Danielle Hunter are back on the Vikings defensive line for their 10th, sixth and fifth seasons in Purple, respectively.
Shamar Stephen is back again, after a one-year stint in Seattle. Stephen began his career in Minnesota as a seventh-round draft pick in 2014.
How might Stephen’s return up front affect the Vikings defense?
We’ll explore that topic in a moment, but here’s a synopsis on Stephen, who has started 34 of 67 games, totaling 167 tackles (88 solo), 3.0 sacks, four tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.
Stephen has the least notoriety among the four projected starters, but Vikings coaches and teammates know the variety of impacts that Stephen has made within the defense and that they go beyond the stat sheets.
A calling card of Vikings defenses since 2014 under Head Coach Mike Zimmer and Defensive Coordinator George Edwards is every player carrying out his role with accountability so that the other 10 players can each do theirs.
Sometimes that means Stephen takes on a double team to free up a teammate. Other times, it involves him using his strength and technique to beat a blocker. He can clog the running lanes on an assist or make the solo stop.
Back in March when Stephen signed during free agency and Anthony Barr re-signed to stay in Minnesota, Zimmer noted that coaches refer to Stephen as “Big Fundamental.” There also have been occasions where his heart, hustle and a potentially underrated athleticism have made the difference.
“Because he did everything right, he worked hard, he helped in the running game, and he worked every single day on his craft of trying to rush the passer,” Zimmer said. “They’re both great people, and that’s kind of the type of players that we’re trying to get here. Great people, good players who want to learn and get better, be great people in the locker room and help each other get better. It’s really a great day for me to get these two guys back. They’ll always be Vikings, and they’ll always be ‘Zim guys.’ ”
Stephen, who also was an accomplished basketball player in high school, said he was previously unaware of garnering a nickname that matches the one for 15-time NBA All-Star Tim Duncan.
“The first time I heard it was after the media session,” Stephen said this spring. “I didn’t know the coaches called me that, so I was like, ‘Oh, it has to stick.’ It’s cool. I appreciate the opportunity here.”
The initial impact by Stephen was impressive and is illustrated in this video breakdown of 2014 preseason games by Vikings.com’s Mike Wobschall:
Stephen just kept improving. He is enjoying his return to the team that helped him flourish and the opportunity to again play for defensive line coach Andre Patterson.
“[Patterson has] helped me with everything, reading formations, playing my technique, in the pass game,” Stephen said. “He’s done a lot for me in my career, and I can see my career going even further than it is now. Without him, I’d be in a world of hurt, but he’s helped me so much in my career.”
“He has so many great, great things that he illustrates for us to focus on,” Stephen added. “It helps us play faster. You can’t ask for a better coach.”
Role on the line/potential impact
Stephen started all 16 games of the 2016 Vikings season alongside Linval Joseph. Stephen played 551 snaps, and Joseph lined up for 719. Tom Johnson was in the game for 477 that season.
In 2017, the Vikings opened all but one game with Joseph and Johnson, who led the trio with 673 snaps. Joseph followed with 663, and Stephen played 384.
Stephen, who is capable of playing nose tackle and the 3-technique positions, said the Seahawks used him more at nose tackle last season. According to pro-football-reference.com, Stephen played 494 defensive snaps for Seattle.
“Here, I’m up to whatever the coaches want me to play, 3, nose,” he said. “I’m here to work and be able to help them in run, pass – whatever they want me to do.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said re-signing Stephen was a “critical piece” of the Vikings plans in free agency this offseason.
View photos of Vikings DT Shamar Stephen. He enters his sixth NFL season in 2019 and rejoins the Vikings after spending the 2018 season with the Seattle Seahawks.
When asked why, Zimmer said, “One of the things I felt like all along this year that if going into next season we have maybe a little bit more size in the middle, that would help the linebackers and some of the secondary guys, help solidify some of the running game.”
“We’re talking about doing some different things defensively this year, and being able to have a guy with Shamar’s versatility along with Linval inside, I think it will help us change some of the packages that we run,” Zimmer added.
A major factor in the 2017 Vikings leading the NFL in points against and yards allowed was the team’s performance against the run.
Minnesota ranked second in rushing yards allowed per game (83.6), third in rush attempts per game by opponents (22.8), fifth in yards allowed per attempt (3.7) and ninth in rushing touchdowns allowed (10 on the season) en route to a 13-3 mark and appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
A desire to put more pressure on quarterbacks from the 3-technique after falling in the conference title game prompted the signing of Sheldon Richardson to a one-year deal in March 2018.
Richardson started all 16 games and totaled 4.5 sacks for the Vikings before inking a deal with Cleveland this offseason. He played a role in helping the Vikings total 50 sacks with a league-best sacks/pass attempt rate of 9.94 percent.
Although the Vikings ranked a respectable ninth in points against and fourth in yards allowed, the rushing defense stats took a big hit.
Minnesota ranked 15th in rushing yards allowed per game (113.4), 22nd in rush attempts per game by opponents (27.5), 8th in yards allowed per attempt (4.1) and 15th in rushing touchdowns allowed (13 on the season), finishing 8-7-1 on the year and missing the postseason by half a game.
Joseph was unable to participate in team drills during the Vikings voluntary offseason program and mandatory minicamp, but he is looking forward to lining up alongside Stephen again.
“Oh man, I’m glad Shamar is back. Shamar is my guy,” Joseph said. “Him coming back and bringing that presence, he’s another guy who loves to coach, too, so he will help all of the young guys be as good as him because we need each other.
“Shamar is a good guy against the run,” Joseph added. “Shamar does a lot of things that don’t really get credit. He is a big part of this team, and he was [from 2014-17]. We got far when Shamar was here and took a step back because we didn’t have Shamar. So, having him back, his leadership role, his effort every day, we’re a better team.”
The impact could be felt at other positions in the defense, notably for linebackers Eric Kendricks and Barr.
Kendricks and Barr have worked in tandem to show the Double-A gap blitz look in past seasons but didn’t seem to be deployed in that look as frequently in 2018.
Was it because of personnel? Or, was it because other teams have placed one of those packages — developed by Zimmer back during his career as a defensive coordinator — in their own defenses and therefore gotten enough reps to make it easier on their offensive linemen to handle the look?
Maybe a little bit of both, or some other reason altogether.
Stephen has the strength, ability and technique to take on multiple blocks, create traffic jams and clear paths for teammates like Kendricks, who has led the Vikings in tackles in each of his four seasons (105, 126, 136 and 122), and Barr, who averaged 92 tackles a season in the four years that Stephen was here.
Injuries kept Barr out of three games last season, and he totaled 71 tackles, 3.0 sacks and eight tackles for loss.
The return of Barr, even though it first appeared he was heading to the New York Jets, and Stephen further solidified a continuity within the defense that is rarely seen in the NFL’s era of free agency.
The knowledge of the scheme and teammates has Stephen excited about what is possible in 2019.
“We have so much experience together and are so comfortable with one another that we can do a lot of stuff,” Stephen said. “I think that’s the most exciting part.”
Training camp practices should provide interesting opportunities for fans to see how the Vikings might deploy defenders this fall, but noticing Stephen amidst several established stars might require keen vision.
“He’s quiet, he works real hard,” Zimmer said. “You don’t really notice him, he just plays really, really good every time he goes out there.”