Written By Sam Ekstrom (ZoneCoverage.com)
Photo Credit: Brian Curski
It has surely been tempting for Minnesota Vikings fans to take nose tackle Linval Joseph for granted since he signed with the team in 2014.
In his five years in Minnesota, Joseph has managed to be one of the league’s best run-stuffers while often taking on two blockers, yet he’s found a way to pressure opposing quarterbacks in the process.
His 2018 impact has been quieter than in years past, however, save for his Week 5 game against the Eagles when Joseph recorded his lone sack of the season and returned Carson Wentz’s fumble for a touchdown.
Joseph is stuck on one sack after having three or more sacks in three of the previous four years. He’s recorded just three quarterback hits — a low for his time in Minnesota — after having 10 last year and 17 the year before that. Per Pro Football Focus, his quarterback pressures have been cut in half from 30 to 15 this year. He had averaged 29 over the previous four seasons.
Nonetheless, defensive coordinator George Edwards still sees Joseph’s strength on display as teams routinely double him to try and neutralize the 330-pound weapon.
“The one thing I can guarantee you, when they do double him, he’s getting push in the pocket,” said Edwards, “and anytime you can feel as a quarterback you’re getting pushed at your feet, it can still affect the throw. We don’t talk about sacks all the time around here. It’s not just getting sacks, it’s about affecting the quarterback, and he does that.”
Joseph is one of 28 interior defensive linemen to have 10 sacks and 40 quarterback hits since 2014, though most of the 28 fitting the criteria would be considered 3-techniques or situational inside pass-rushers. Being the rare nose tackle that puts up pass-rushing numbers has put a target on Joseph’s back over the years since he became a foundation piece of Mike Zimmer’s defense and received a contract extension in 2017.
“I think people are aware if you single-block him it’s gonna be a tough day,” said Edwards, “and they realize a lot of times that they have to double him, so for us, that allows our linebackers, who play at the second level, to be a little bit more free as they’re coming across. But he’s gonna give you a hard day’s work every day that he’s out there.”
Even without Joseph producing pressure as usual, the Vikings have amassed a record number of sacks (50) under Zimmer, getting 14.5 from defensive backs and linebackers that have often benefited from Joseph’s hard work between the tackles. Many assumed the presence of Sheldon Richardson would open things up for Joseph, but Zimmer said mid-season that he felt Richardson cleared things up more for the defensive ends than for Joseph. Danielle Hunter has produced a career-best 14.5 sacks.
Wear and tear could also be a reasonable explanation for why Joseph isn’t putting up the same uncanny numbers. The 30-year-old has only missed one game this season, but he’s dealt with a handful of minor issues, including a knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday’s practice.
Joseph played a season-low 30 snaps in each of the previous two games, though with the Vikings holding hefty leads in the fourth quarter of both contests, Minnesota sent its pass-rushing unit after Ryan Tannehill, Matthew Stafford and Matt Cassel while Joseph got a chance to rest.
Joseph’s work against the run has remained solid, but statistically not to the Pro Bowl standards of the previous two seasons when he was fifth in the NFL with 31 run stops two consecutive years. He ranks tied for 17th, per Pro Football Focus, with 21 run stops in 2018, but he showed his toughness on the first play of the game against Detroit, spinning off a double team to tackle LeGarrette Blount — an effort that pops on film more than the box score.
Linval Joseph, first play of the Lions game. Such an impressive play out of a double team. (Sorry about the glare.) pic.twitter.com/APUyIpGpxi
— Sam Ekstrom (@SamEkstrom) December 27, 2018
“I know what kind of athlete he is for a big, big man,” said Zimmer earlier in the season. “He’s got a lot of physicality. He’s a very, very good athlete.”
Joseph may not be making as many splash plays as in previous years, which puts him back in a spot he fully embraces: overlooked but still effective.
“He pays attention to the detail,” said Edwards. “He’s more than your typical nose with the push that he gets in the pocket, being able to understand blocking recognition, his effort to the football on screens. He brings a lot to us defensively.”