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Vikings Defensive Ends Stop Run to Rev Up Pass Rush

EDEN PRAIRIE –The Vikings are the NFL's only team to have three defensive ends with at least six sacks apiece this season.

Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter are talented pass rushers, to be sure. They've worked to secure sack opportunities, though, by first limiting the run and forcing opposing offenses to throw the ball.

"From day one, they've been told, 'You earn the right to rush,' " explained Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson. "And you earn the right to rush by stopping the run. If you don't stop the run, you're never going to get a chance to do what you love to do."

Minnesota's defensive line has proven effective against the run thus far, and in particular, the Vikings defensive ends have shown improvement across the board.

Patterson said the aspect that stands out against the run is the athleticism of the Vikings two starting ends – Robison and Griffen – along with Hunter, who plays a main rotational role on the line.

"They're able to get off blocks and make plays on the outside," Patterson said.

The veteran coach pointed to a specific play against Dallas on Dec. 1 when Hunter was able to get off a block and cut off running back Ezekiel Elliott on the sideline.

Hunter said he owes his success to the focus he and his linemates put in throughout the week.

"That's something we focus on – stopping the run first and then being able to rush the passer," Hunter said. "And that's something we want to do, so we [work hard] on our technique and on details during the week in order to stop the run."

The group's teamwork during practices then smoothly translates to game day.

"We believe in each other," Hunter said. "We go out there, we have an assignment, and we don't worry about anybody else. We know that whoever comes in, they're going to do their job."

Patterson emphasized the way Griffen executed his job against the Cowboys. From forcing a fumble to leading the team in total tackles (10), Griffen had a monster game despite Minnesota's eventual two-point loss. Of his 10 tackles, six were run stops, and four allowed the opposing runner to gain just three yards or fewer.

"The Dallas game was a big game for Griff'," Patterson said. "Their athleticism comes into play when teams try to extend the play. I think Danielle, Griff' and 'B-Rob' have all done a nice job with that this season."

Griffen summed up the ends' performance in three phases: getting their gap, getting off on the ball and making tackles.

"We stopped the run well, we contained Dak well, and we got after them," Griffen said. "We pressured, guys got sacks, and our defense played great tonight."

Of the three defensive ends, Griffen leads the group in tackles against the run (26), with 21 of those limiting the opponent to 5 or fewer yards on the ground. Hunter follows with 21 tackles against the run, 16 of which have limited to 5 or fewer yards.

According to Patterson, Hunter had the ability to get off blocks and make a play before he ever set foot in the Vikings practice facility. What's changed, however, is his technique and discretion on each individual play.

The biggest thing we had to work with him on was knowing to say, 'OK, I have to stick on this block to make sure that I let somebody else be free' and when to say, 'It's OK for me to come off this block,' " Patterson explained. "And he's gotten way better at that."

Although Robison has the fewest number of tackles against the run with 13, he's been highly effective at making crucial stops – 10 of his tackles (77 percent) have limited opponents to fewer than five yards, while four have allowed the runner to gain just a single yard or less.

In addition, Patterson reminded that a defensive end can heavily influence the run without being the one to make the tackle.

Patterson said Robison bought into the changes proposed under Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer when he took the helm in 2014, despite the fact that Robison had already been in the league for seven seasons at that point.

"He's a technician on how to play the run and how to play blocks, and he has a great feel of what's getting ready to happen to him," Patterson said. "People will see the guy who made the tackle, but they don't understand that a player might have eaten up two guys that for that one guy to make the play. And that's what B-Rob does very, very well.

"I could make a clinic tape off of the way B-Rob plays the run," Patterson added.

The Vikings defense is tied for third in the league with only six rushing touchdowns allowed this season. Minnesota has allowed 1,242 total rushing yards over 12 games, compared to 1,390 yards at the same point in 2015.

The defensive ends have played a big role in the defensive line's impact, and they know it will pay off. 

"Stopping the run is huge," Patterson said. "It allows us to put our fast group on the field and have a chance to get after the quarterback."

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