I don't know many people who would argue against the notion that the Denver Broncos had the best defense in the NFL last season. Even after losing some key pieces to free agency, their dominant start to this season has been nothing to sneeze at, either. But there is a team whose defense is currently nipping at their heels for that top spot, and that would be the Minnesota Vikings.
Molded in their head coach Mike Zimmer's image, this year's version of the Vikings D can do it all. They can cover, you can't run on them, and maybe most importantly, they are very adept at putting opposing quarterbacks on their ass.
The most impressive thing about the Vikings' pass-rushing prowess is that it's never just one guy who is getting pressure. No matter who they have in there on the defensive line, they work collaboratively to make sure the opposing quarterback can never be comfortable. They have three different players who already have at least three sacks through the first three games.
That constant pressure puts a lot of stress on offensive lines and aids the back end of the Vikings defense. The less time a quarterback has to throw, the easier it is for the secondary to lock down their receivers. That double whammy has Minnesota leading the league in sacks and tied for second in the league in interceptions so far.
Their performance in Sunday's win over the Panthers in Carolina was as clear of an example of how this all goes together as you may ever see.
The Vikings were able to sack Panthers quarterback Cam Newton an astonishing eight times in that game, the second-most times he has ever been sacked. It was certainly not a coincidence that they were also able to hold Newton's favorite receiver, Kelvin Benjamin, to zero catches and come away with three interceptions on the day. That Vikings defense had the Panthers offense looking a lot like they did in the Super Bowl.
Maybe even worse.
Now, on a day where there were a lot of standouts on that Vikings defense, there was one guy who stood out a little bit above everyone else to me. And that guy was defensive end Everson Griffen.
The funny thing about Griffen is that just about every time I talk about the dude I find myself saying "we don't talk about him enough." And it's true. I mean Griffen is a great story in his own right. The guy only had one measly start in his first four seasons in the NFL and he was still able put up really good numbers as a backup, including eight sacks in 2012. He showed enough in that role that not only did the Vikings name him a full-time starter in 2014, they also opened up their wallet and gave him a big-money contract extension to go along with it.
Guess what? He has been worth every damn dime!
After back-to-back seasons with double-digit sacks in 2014 and 2015 and a visit to the Pro Bowl last season to boot, Griffen is definitely in the conversation when you talk about the best pass rushers at defensive end in the league. Or, rather, if he isn't, he should be!
The guy can do it all: power rushes, speed rushes, spin moves, you name it. When an offensive lineman sees Griffen lined up across from him, he knows he has a long day ahead.
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This week it wasn't so much how many plays Griffen made, but how big the plays were that he did make. He started off the game kind of quiet for the first quarter or so, but it turns out that he was sick. The team even listed him as questionable to return early in the second quarter. Of course that kinda makes his performance all the more impressive.
If you didn't see the game you just have to understand that it didn't start off all that hot for the rest of the Vikings, either. The Panthers scored a field goal and a touchdown on their first two drives, while the Vikings gained a total of 9 yards on theirs. But then a funny thing happened. The Vikings started making plays on defense.
First, Danielle Hunter sacked Newton in the end zone for a safety near the end of the first quarter to make the score 10-2. Then the Vikings defense forced the Panthers to punt on three consecutive drives. That third punt was caught and returned 54 yards for a touchdown by Minnesota return man Marcus Sherels with 3:37 left in the second quarter which made the score 10-8 after the Vikings were unable to convert the extra point.
Just when it appeared that aaaaaall the momentum shifted to the Vikings' sideline, Newton and the Panthers decided to try to get their shit together and put together one last scoring drive before halftime. After eight plays Carolina had made it all the way down to the Vikings' 36-yard line and seemed assured of getting at least a field goal attempt out of the deal.
Enter Everson Griffen.
On second-and-3 the Vikings showed a double A-gap blitz with both of their linebackers walked up on the line. At the snap, both guys actually did blitz, leaving Newton with nowhere inside to step up. Griffen, at his normal spot at right defensive end, came off the ball, and bull rushed Panthers left tackle Michael Oher right back into Newton's lap. With Newton feeling the pressure coming from seemingly every direction, he tried to spin away from the defenders and get outside of Griffen to keep the play alive.
Griffen just reached out and grabbed Newton by the back of his collar (it isn't a horse collar if the quarterback is still in the pocket) and pulled him down to the ground for a 12-yard loss.
That effectively knocked the Panthers out of field goal range. The very next play, Newton tried to go deep to Ted Ginn Jr. but instead was picked off by Vikings cornerback Trae Waynes, killing any chance of the Panthers increasing their lead before halftime.
Did I mention that Minnesota was getting the ball first after halftime? Because they ended up marching right down the field and scoring a touchdown on that possession, taking a 16-10 lead.
Playing with their first lead of the day really seemed to energize the whole Minnesota defense. They forced Carolina to punt on their next possession, and on the possession after that defensive lineman Tom Johnson helped to force Newton into throwing another interception to cornerback Terence Newman. The Vikings were able to convert that turnover into a field goal to go up 19-10. With the way their defense was playing at that point, it might as well have been a 21-point lead.
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On the ensuing drive, Griffen showed up again. With Carolina facing a first-and-19 on their own 16-yard line after they were called for holding on the first play of the drive, Griffen exploded off the line at the snap of the football and beat Oher with a speed rip to sack Newton for a second time. It went for a loss of 10 yards and helped to force the Panthers into yet another punt.
The Vikings were able to kick one more field goal on the next drive to all but put the game away. But those pesky Panthers just refused to go away.
Carolina managed to move the ball all the way down the Minnesota 24-yard line before Newton was unable to connect on three straight passes. With 2:29 left to go in the game, the Panthers needed to score a touchdown if they had any chance of coming back to win so they made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-10.
This time, the Vikings sent another blitz, but for some odd reason nobody blocked Griffen. Coming scot-free, he was on Newton before he knew what hit him. But with Newton knowing this was the last chance his team was going to get, he made sure he stayed up just long enough to throw the ball up in air.
Unfortunately for him and his team, that ball landed in Johnson's big old mitts for an interception. Griffen got credit for the pressure that forced him into it. That pretty much ended any chance the Panthers had of winning the game.
Griffen, however, wasn't quite done.
You play to the final whistle and Newton and the Panthers were still trying to score when they got the ball back with just under two minutes left in the game.
That also gave Griffen another opportunity to get a sack, as well. On third-and-9 with 1:15 left in the game, Griffen tried his patented spin move. Oher did a great job of blocking it, washing him to the other side of the formation. But remember when I said the Vikings pass rush isn't just about one guy? Hunter was able to get good pressure on the play, but he wasn't quite able to get Newton down. Griffen, who kept working even after being blocked initially, saw Newton stumbling away from Hunter's tackle attempt and went ahead and finished him off for his third sack of the game.
After the Vikings lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a knee injury late in the preseason, a lot of people (i.e. me) started writing them off for this year, but with the way this defense is playing it kind of reminds me of how defense carried the Broncos all the way to the Super Bowl last year. Not saying it will happen for Minnesota, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did at this rate.
It may have taken him awhile to get going, but Everson Griffen turned it on when it truly mattered to help his team get to 3-0 alone atop the NFC North. Three sacks, two pressures, including one that led to an interception, and one other tackle is one helluva performance under any circumstances, but especially for a guy who was sick and at one point questionable to even return to the game. That's why he is my choice for Hoss of the Week for Week 3 of the NFL season.
Here's hoping that we finally start talking about him "enough" soon.