EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. – Standing on the sidelines, Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson is a statuesque picture of calm. No matter the situation, Patterson remains unrattled.
"When you're calm, then they remain calm," Patterson said. "They look at you and say, 'Well OK, it's no big deal. We'll handle it.' Then they keep their focus in the right place."
From minor injuries and roster moves to losing starting nose tackle Linval Joseph for multiple games, Patterson and his defensive line have rolled with the punches and continued to fight their way to where they are now: the playoffs.
Throughout the season, the line has faced a handful of obstacles, keeping Patterson on his toes. When injuries crop up, whether long-term or even sidelining a player for a few snaps, juggling a defensive line rotation can be challenging.
When Minnesota played Kansas City on Oct. 18, Patterson found out shortly before the game that defensive end Everson Griffen was too ill to play, sliding Danielle Hunter into the position for his starting debut. Later in the game, backup defensive tackle Shamar Stephen was carted off the field.
The Vikings placed Stephen on injured reserve on Oct. 20 and signed free agent tackle Kenrick Ellis to the roster. In December, backup defensive end Scott Crichton was moved to IR, and the Vikings signed defensive end Zach Moore from the practice squad.
Besides second-tier changes throughout the season, the Vikings worked through hurdles in the starting lineup as well. Despite appearing on the injury report a few times, Griffen played through a nagging shoulder injury and didn't miss another game.
After playing a significant role in the Vikings defense all season, Joseph suffered a foot injury and was inactive for three games (Seattle, at Arizona, Chicago). Joseph returned to the field against the Giants on Dec. 27 and recorded five tackles (three solo) over 31 snaps. The defensive tackle did not practice the following week, however, and was sidelined during the Vikings win at Green Bay.
Rather than allow itself to be shaken, the defensive line adapted quickly to each and every circumstance, including Joseph's absence. At times, that meant tackle Danielle Hunter sliding over to fill in at nose, while tackle Tom Johnson stepped up to cover Floyd's usual territory. Patterson was also able to utilize Ellis at times, and veteran defensive end Brian Robison was willing to slide inside on a special package.
"When you have guys that go in from defensive end to three-technique, it gives your team that extra ability to add another good pass rusher that we have on our team to be able to be able to get back to the quarterback [with different packages]," Griffin said. "That allows us to be quicker in the middle and quicker on the outside to get to the quarterback, especially one like [Seahawks quarterback] Russell [Wilson]. You know, he's a scrambling quarterback. It allows us to put fast personnel on the field and allows us to rush even faster than we do."
Vikings Head Coach Mike Zimmer is a big believer in versatility and depth on the defensive line because it allows him to use a rotation to keep guys fresh and/or fill gaps caused by injuries.
"It's important that all those guys can do a number of things, since we usually only have seven [active] on game day," Zimmer said. "But Sharrif [Floyd] has been able to play nose tackle, Brian [Robison]'s moved inside some, [Danielle] Hunter's been playing both sides, so we've been using them a lot of different ways. That helps."
The youngest player in the NFL at 21 years old, Hunter ended up being a large asset for the line, as Patterson could rotate him in the line to relieve Griffen. Hunter finished the season with 34 tackles and 6.0 sacks, second-most by a rookie.
Defensive end Justin Trattou played a role as well. Trattou played just five games but made his time on the field count, recording two interceptions.
Robison, who played out of position when needed, said that versatility and a team-first approach have been keys to the defensive line's success.
"I think, especially the last four or five weeks our defensive line play has really elevated," Robison said. "I think that's a testament to the guys we have in that room – not being selfish, guys being able to move around, do some different things."
Robison added, "We've been able to show some things on tape the last three or four weeks that we didn't run early in the season, and a lot of that's just from guys learning on the fly and understanding that there are certain things we need to do in order to win ball games."
The defensive line's scrappy play and hard work has helped the team win games up until this point, including defeating the Packers in Week 17 to regain control of the NFC North division and earn home-field advantage for Sunday's Wild Card matchup. The line put a lot of pressure on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and Griffen (2.0), Floyd (1.0) and Johnson (0.5) all recorded sacks in the contest.
"We just believe in each other. Things got tough in that game [against Green Bay], and at the end of the day we stuck together, we fought through it – hands on our knees, but when the ball was snapped we played," Floyd said. "We gave everything we had, and we came out on top."
This week, the Vikings are hopeful that Joseph – listed as probable on Friday's injury report – will likely be back in the lineup to face Seattle. Joseph did not play against the Seahawks on Dec. 6, and Robison emphasized the importance of having him back on the field for the rematch.
"He's a big run stopper for us and our defense, and he brings a different element than when we don't have him there," Robison said. "We've had some guys that have stepped in and played for him tremendously, filling in for that role, but having him in there – obviously having such a presence, other offenses have to account for him in the run game. So, that helps us out tremendously."
Patterson's unit weathered the storm through the regular season. Now, when everything is on the line, they're recharged and ready to go.