In America today, the richest 1 percent of the population owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. When it comes to defensive football players, the Vikings are the NFL’s 1 percent.
Last season, Minnesota fielded one of the league’s most balanced and dominant defensive units, finishing first in both points and yards allowed while ranking tops in weighted DVOA. Mike Zimmer’s squad boasted an embarrassment of riches on that side of the ball, with All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes, defensive backs Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, a top-tier pass-rush group headlined by Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen, and an elite nose tackle in Linval Joseph. So this offseason, the team went out and added a top-shelf defensive lineman to that group.
Free agent Sheldon Richardson signed a one-year, $8 million pact with Minnesota in March—and after one week, that deal is already looking like a steal. In the Vikings’ 24-16 win over the 49ers last Sunday, Richardson manned the 3-technique position in Zimmer’s scheme, notching seven pressures (two hits and five hurries) on 27 pass-rush snaps. That tied for tops among all defensive tackles last week, per Pro Football Focus, and outpaced a few teams’ pressure totals in Week 1. Richardson had a hand in a pair of Minnesota takeaways, was credited for a half-sack, and was an absolute force against the run. A standout on a unit full of superstars, Richardson looks poised to take the Vikings’ defense—and by extension, maybe the entire team—over the top.
The Seahawks let Richardson walk in free agency despite trading a second-rounder to acquire him last September—but the former Jet wasn’t exactly a bust in Seattle. The former Pro Bowler recorded just one sack, but he was a menace on the inside, racking up 36 pressures on the season, a pass-rush-productivity rate that ranked seventh among all defensive tackles, per PFF. The one-year deal he signed in Minnesota seems to point to his desire to get his sack total up in 2018 and help him earn a big-money long-term deal, and, on a stacked line like the Vikings’, he’s got a great shot at that. He’s also a perfect fit for what head coach Mike Zimmer wants from the 3-technique position, the defensive tackle who lines up on the outside shoulder of opposing guards.
“We felt like one of the positions we needed to get better at on defense was our 3-technique,’’ Zimmer said when they signed him. “It is one where those guys can affect the quarterback as much as any position along with our defensive ends. … He didn’t have a lot of sacks [last season], but as I’ve said before, sacks are not our no. 1 goal.’’
Sacks are a sexy stat, but what defensive coaches really want is a pass rusher who can consistently affect the quarterback, getting him out of rhythm, making him move, or simply making him uncomfortable. Richardson slides into a spot that Tom Johnson (now with Seattle, oddly enough) played for Minnesota last season, and provides an upgrade at a crucial spot in the defense. On Sunday, the whole spectrum of what Richardson can do to an offensive line was on display. Late in the first quarter, Richardson overpowered 49ers guard Michael Person, penetrating into the backfield almost instantly to force Jimmy Garoppolo to his left. Richardson didn’t quite get the sack, but as Garoppolo scrambled to escape, Griffen finished the job.
Richardson was a thorn in Garoppolo’s side all day. On this play, a play-action bomb down the field that was dropped by tight end George Kittle, the big interior pass rusher grappled with tackle Garry Gilliam before getting into Garoppolo’s face just as the QB let the ball go. It’s a game of inches, and had the 49ers’ new $138 million man had an extra beat with which to throw, he would’ve had time to take a little bit off the pass, and it could’ve gone for a huge gain.
Garoppolo had to deal with a muddied, unpredictable pocket the whole game. Lining Richardson up next to Joseph presents problems for opponents’ interior offensive line, as both pack a lot of power in their initial punch and often pushed San Francisco’s linemen back into their quarterback’s feet. That’s not a comfortable position to throw from.
Richardson moves better than most 295-pound humans can. On this play, he chased Garoppolo down from behind, preventing what would have been an effective scramble.
And while Richardson didn’t record a sack on this snap, he did one thing better—forcing an off-target throw that was picked, essentially sealing the win for the Vikings.
The sixth-year pro was unblockable against the run Sunday, too, totaling six tackles and factoring in on several more. On this play early in the game, Richardson knocked Person into the backfield and then forced running back Matt Breida to take a wider angle, stringing Breida out to Hunter, who made the tackle.
On this goal-line play in the first quarter, Richardson braced guard Joshua Garnett, knocking the former first-rounder off his feet at the point of attack. That was the lane that running back Alfred Morris wanted to take, and it left Morris with nowhere to go. Morris lost the ball when a trio of Vikings converged, and Minnesota took over. Richardson didn’t force the fumble on this play, but he had a big part in it happening.
On this play, Richardson fights through a double-team to stuff Breida near the line of scrimmage.
And here, he uses an effective long-arm move against rookie tackle Mike McGlinchey, knifing into the backfield again to bring down Breida.
The Vikings’ complex defense was so good last season not just because of its highly talented players, but because of its rare continuity. Everyone knew their jobs and the schematic concepts, inside and out. While Richardson is green in the Zimmer scheme, he’s already hit the ground running.
Paired with Joseph on the inside, defensive coordinators are now forced to pick their poison on whom to double, and Richardson’s speed and power are already helping free up the pass rushers on the outside for single blocks. He’s shown the ability to help keep Minnesota’s linebackers clean by eating up blocks up front, and he gives them more dynamism against the run because of his ability to slice through the line.
It’s tough to know who makes the Vikings’ scheme “go,” as it wouldn’t look the same without the versatility of Smith, the speed and ball skills of Rhodes, the explosiveness of Griffen and Hunter, the instincts of Kendricks and Barr, or the sheer power of Joseph. But against the 49ers, Richardson not only produced on his own but helped elevate the play of the guys around him. Considering how good the Vikings already were, that doesn’t even seem fair.