Vikings’ revamped defensive line hopes to live up to the franchise’s high standards
The 319-pound defensive tackle was Minnesota’s main free agency target in March, and he secured a two-year, $ 21 million contract. Soon after, he was under the tutelage of Patterson, defensive co-coordinator and defensive line coach.
Patterson, 61, grew up in the days of the legendary Minnesota Purple People Eaters defensive line. He had his first stint as the Vikings’ defensive line coach from 1998 to 1999, a period that included John Randle and Chris Doleman as part of the Rushmen Line. And he’s had three different linemen for a total of eight Pro Bowls since returning to the squad in 2014.
“Coach Dre is always talking about the Purple People Eaters and the Rushmen and stuff like that,” Tomlinson said. “He talks about John Randle all the time, the way he used to come in and make everyone work. He always talks about it in the tradition and pretty much like the D line here is a tradition.
Yes it is. In the franchise’s 60-year history, the Vikings have had 14 different defensive linemen who won a total of 29 all-pro first-team caps and made a total of 56 Pro Bowls.
In recent years, the Viking tradition of the best linemen has continued. Between 2015-19, defensive ends Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter and nose tackle Linval Joseph managed eight Pro Bowls combined, and they were instrumental in ranking the No.1 team in the NFL at a time. in defense and total defense in 2017.
Then came last year. Hunter missed the entire season after neck surgery, Griffen left as a free agent, and Joseph was released as part of a salary-related move. And the defensive line was horrible.
The Vikings had only 23 sacks in 2020. By comparison, Vikings defensive end Jared Allen had already had almost as many in a single season: 22 in 2011.
Thus, the Vikings set out to re-equip their defensive line. Hunter is back and would have been fully recovered even though he didn’t play in the preseason. Tomlinson was signed after four seasons with the New York Giants. Nose tackle Michael Pierce is back after signing as a free agent in March 2020 and was out last season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The fourth starter is still a bit raw second-year defensive end DJ Wonnum, but he will have a lot of support behind him in Griffen, who returned to the squad as a reserve, and Stephen Weatherly, who returned after spent a year with Caroline.
“We’ve had four new starters on the defensive line in the last year and the guys they replaced are substitutes elsewhere,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.
It’s actually putting it a bit nicely. Shamar Stephen, last year’s nose tackle starter, is a reserve with the Denver Broncos. But the other three former starters – defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson (New Orleans) and defensive ends Jalyn Holmes (New Orleans) and Ifeadi Odenigbo (Cleveland) – are now all on the practice teams.
Minnesota‘s retooled line will be on display in Sunday’s season opener in Cincinnati. Pierce is hoping the line can live up to some of the greats in franchise history.
“You honor these guys every time you step on the pitch, and that’s something Coach Dre has done a good job with us,” said Pierce.
Like Tomlinson, Pierce took a crash course from Patterson on the history of the Minnesota defensive lines.
“You have a great history of defensive linemen in this organization (and) these guys are watching them play,” Patterson said. “These guys want them to play at the level they did back then. I think when they go into the D-line room (at the TCO Performance Center) and see all the pictures on the wall of all these guys who have been Pro Bowlers through the history of this organization, they see how much Hall of Fame defensive linemen are sitting in Canton wearing purple jerseys. It should mean something to them when they go to the field they represent these guys.
The Vikings have had four Hall of Fame defensive linemen: tackles Alan Page and John Randle, and goals Carl Eller and Chris Doleman. Doleman passed away in January 2020 and the other three have lived in the Twin Cities since their retirement.
Randle, who played for the Vikings from 1990 to 2000, will closely monitor the arrival on the field of the rebuilt Minnesota line against the Bengals.
“Hopefully they can set new standards for the Minnesota Vikings, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” Randle said. “It’s something hard to do because when you think of Minnesota Vikings football, you think of good play on the defensive line. It has always been a trademark of the Minnesota Vikings. When I joined the Vikings, I just tried to live up to the guys who came before me, guys like Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, and Alan Page.
These three were key members of the Purple People Eaters from 1967 to 1978. The quartet also included defensive tackle Gary Larsen until his retirement after the 1974 season, then Doug Sutherland.
The Purple People Eaters helped the Vikings reach four Super Bowls, although they lost all of them. They helped them to be ranked No.1 in the NFL for defensive scorers over three consecutive seasons, from 1969 to 1971.
“We were one of the best (defensive lines of all time), if not the best,” Eller said.
Marshall took it a step further by saying, “I think we were absolutely the best.”
Randle doesn’t disagree.
“I would love to see a statue in front (of US Bank Stadium) of the Purple People Eaters because when you talk about the Minnesota Vikings, you mean the Purple People Eaters,” Randle said. “This is where it started.”
Later, Randle was instrumental in ensuring the Vikings had one of the best defensive lines in the league. From the late 1980s to the turn of the century, Minnesota had Randle, Doleman, and defensive tackles Keith Millard and Henry Thomas.
The tradition continued into the new century. The late 2000s and early 2010s saw Allen and defensive tackles Kevin Williams and Pat Williams. And then came the period with Griffen, Hunter and Joseph.
“The Viking defensive line is a tradition to me, like your dad or grandfather putting on a watch and saying, ‘Son, take this and wear it with pride,’ Randle said.
Weatherly knows all about the great Vikings of yesteryear seeking to impart wisdom to current linemen on the team. When he had his first stint with Minnesota from 2016 to 2019, he met Page, Doleman and Randle.
“These are huge shoes to fill out,” Weatherly said of the team’s D-line tradition. “We always try to preserve this heritage and take it one step further when we have the opportunity. … We are just trying to improve each day and try to live up to that standard. ”
Randle has been like a proud dad watching Viking defensive linemen excel since retiring after a 2001-03 stint with Seattle and returned to the Twin Cities. In recent years he has closely followed the development of Griffen, who has made four Pro Bowls, and Hunter, who has been nominated for two.
Randle was elated when he recently read that Kevin Williams had wanted so badly to live up to wearing the number 93 after joining the Vikings in 2003. Williams said in June that he did not initially realize that Randle had already wore this number, and when he found out he was like, “Boy, you know you can’t be a bust, right?” “
Williams, who played for the Vikings from 2003 to 2013 and will be inducted into the team’s Ring of Honor at halftime in the Oct. 3 game against Cleveland, was anything but a bust.
“I read this story and I was just in awe,” Randle said.
Randle then called and left a voicemail message for Williams congratulating him on joining him in the Ring of Honor and saying he never knew his story on No.93. Williams recently said that the first time that ‘he had told this story, it was during a Zoom call in June with the media announcing his Ring of Honor induction.
“It was kind of an internal deal,” said Williams, now a volunteer defense assistant coach at Little Rock (Ark.) Central High School. “I took it upon myself that you picked that number and you can’t be a sorry player now. … When you’re part of the Vikings organization, you realize they’ve had some great defensive linemen who’ve gone through this program and that’s just a standard you want to maintain. ”
Williams is now doing what he can to help the current Minnesota defensive line become respectable again. When he was in the Twin Cities in June to learn about his Ring of Honor induction, he spoke to linemen at a minicamp.
“I kind of shared a few words with them and wished them luck,” Williams said. “I mean, everyone knew that (after last season) our D-line needed to be strengthened, and I think (the Vikings) did a good job of doing it.”
Because of their mass, some already compare Pierce and Tomlinson’s 340-pound Minnesota interior defense line to the Williams wall of Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, who dominated against the 2005-10 run. Kevin said he was playing at around 310 pounds and that Pat was about Pierce’s weight when he played when he was listed at 317 pounds.
“I wish these guys the best and hope they play well enough to have their own little nickname,” said Kevin Williams.
Allen, who played for the Vikings from 2008 to 2013, said it was too early to start making a comparison with the Williams Wall.
“I would like to warn people not to make early comparisons because right now you’re putting the pressure on guys,” Allen said. “Let them have a good two or three year race. “
Allen, who lives in Nashville, TN, doesn’t pay as much attention to the Vikings as some of their other top former defensive linemen. But he certainly took note when Minnesota re-signed Griffen, who had been his 2010-13 teammate last month. Zimmer said Griffen, 33, would now be used as a “situational” pass precipitator.
“It’s going to be curious what Everson’s role is, but I think what he can provide is a part of that old-fashioned mentality that has been passed down through generations to younger players.” Allen said. “It’s good to have Ev back, and I hope they can get back to where they need to go.”
Randle hopes Hunter and Griffen’s return will be good news for the Vikings.
“To me it’s kind of like this band that broke up and they got back together,” Randle said. “And I hope they can come back and recreate a new atmosphere and get us back on the exploding Minnesota Vikings defensive line, go after quarterbacks and lead this team.”