Pierce was the team’s biggest free-agency add as a member of the Baltimore Ravens‘ top-five run defense from a season ago. He was added to replace Linval Joseph, the Vikings’ longtime run-stuffer at nose tackle who was released this offseason to clear cap space.
The Vikings tried to remedy losing Pierce by trading for former Las Vegas Raiders second-rounder P.J. Hall — a move that fell through 24 hours after the trade was announced when Hall failed his team physical, nullifying the trade.
Co-defensive coordinator Adam Zimmer, son of coach Mike Zimmer, may have just given fans a glimpse of how they’ll address the middle of the Vikings defensive front.
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Veteran Shamar Stephen Appears to Be the Answer
Adam Zimmer talked to media this past Wednesday and was asked how the defense will address the void at nose tackle.
Here’s is his response:
We’re going to give a couple guys looks. Shamar Stephen’s done it before and he’s as good a nose (tackle) as there is. We really think a lot of him.
He’s really good in the running game. He’s an extremely smart player. I know the linebackers have an immense respect for him because he lets them flow and make plays. So I think he’ll have the ability to fill that role.
Stephen was the only player mentioned of the “couple guys” their looking at. Second-year defensive tackle Armon Watts and fourth-year veteran Jaleel Johnson’s names have been mentioned as well, but it appears the Vikings are ready to roll with Stephen to start the season after he filled in for Joseph in 2019.
Defensive line specialist and the other half of the Vikings defensive coordinator brain trust Andre Patterson adamantly defended Stephen in a press conference last Friday, crediting him and other defensive tackles for linebacker Eric Kendricks’ Pro Bowl season last year:
“I think Eric Kendricks will tell you that part of the reason he went to the Pro Bowl is because of those two big bodies sitting in front of him… Their No. 1 job in their life is to not let anybody touch Eric (Kendricks),” Patterson said. “People write stuff about Shamar Stephen and I get it because everybody just looks at stats, but if you watch film and you ask Eric Kendricks if he had to pick anybody to go to the game with, that he’d make sure that guy was there, I guarantee he’d tell you it’s (Stephen).”
Stephen’s stats were lackluster in 2019, creating only six pressures and one sack on 314 snaps. Patterson explained that the role of defensive tackles in the Vikings defense is not to pursue but to flatten the line and not allow any blockers to the linebackers.
“They’re doing what we coach them to do,” he said.
Smoke and Mirrors
While Stephen was given the public vote of confidence, it’s possible the Vikings are not happy with the amount of depth or talent at defensive tackle. Hall wasn’t just an invite to come workout at training camp. The Vikings offered a seventh-round pick under the conditions he plays in six games. They were hoping for him to contribute and compete at either defensive tackle spot and took the gamble on a second-rounder the Raiders were about to cut.
Regardless of how telling the Vikings defensive coordinators’ statements prove, they undoubtedly will motivate younger players hoping to get on the field. Stephen has played at the three-technique the majority of his career and could be a better fit at nose tackle entering his seventh season, creating more competition at the three-technique if the Vikings decide to start Stephen at nose tackle.
Jaleel Johnson is entering the final year of his contract and has yet to prove he’s worth an extension with the Vikings. Armon Watts, Hercules Mata’afa and Jalyn Holmes know the expectations entering the middle of their rookie contracts, while rookies James Lynch and David Moa will be vying to prove themselves out of college.
There are still several true run stuffers left in free agency if training camp reveals that no current Vikings lineman is ready. The Vikings currently have $12.7 million in cap space and are pending re-signing Dalvin Cook.
Trevor Squire is a Heavy contributor covering the Minnesota Vikings and journalism graduate from the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities. Connect with him on Twitter @trevordsquire and join our Vikings community at Heavy on Vikings on Facebook.