Sheldon Richardson's prove-it season with Vikings off to fast start

EAGAN, Minn. -- Just as the shortest distance between two points is a line, the quickest way for a defender to get to the quarterback is through the middle of the field.

When the Minnesota Vikings decided to prioritize the 3-technique tackle position this offseason, they sought to find a player who can torment the quarterback following that trajectory as efficaciously as their superstar defensive ends.

What Minnesota got with Sheldon Richardson came in the form of a 295-pound wrecking ball capable of knocking the passer off his spot and providing the defensive line with the interior push needed to constantly disrupt the QB’s rhythm.

Richardson’s signing flew under the radar in free agency because of the record-setting contract Kirk Cousins inked in Minnesota just 24 hours before the former Jets and Seahawks defensive tackle became a Viking. They got a high-end upgrade at a critical position on the NFL's No. 1 defense at a steal of a deal -- one year, $8 million. It's a prove-it contract as he attempts to reset his market value and get back to his 2014 Pro Bowl form.

The Vikings saw the beginnings of their return on investment against San Francisco in Week 1. Richardson’s stat line from his Minnesota debut read: 0.5 sacks, three QB hits, two run stops and a total of seven pressures, which was the most among all defensive tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.

After a quiet preseason, the former Defensive Rookie of the Year showed the Vikings why they went out to get him in the first place; that he’s exactly what they needed at the 3-technique position on a defense primed to lead Minnesota to the Super Bowl

"I told him I hadn’t seen that guy before," Mike Zimmer joked the Monday after opening the season 1-0. "He came on."

Fortunately for Minnesota, Richardson looks to just be getting started.

An immediate impact

Sitting outside on a concrete ledge adjacent to the Vikings practice fields, Richardson thinks back on the makings of his explosive debut. He hasn’t taken over a game like that in awhile.

Not since, he recalls, he played the Vikings during his second season in 2014, when he racked up three sacks, four quarterback hits and three tackles for loss in the Jets' 30-24 overtime loss.

Whether knifing his way into the backfield to stuff the run or chasing down Jimmy Garoppolo to inhibit an open-field scramble, Richardson is a big man who can move like a defensive end with loose hips, explosive power and quick twitch. A crown jewel on a star-studded defensive line, Richardson’s skill set makes him every bit the unicorn coaches are in search of year after year.

"You’re lucky if there’s one in the whole draft (like Richardson)," Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. "Usually if you get one, you try to hold on to him as long as you can."

Against the 49ers, Richardson and nose tackle Linval Joseph created a nightmare scenario for Garappolo, who was forced to throw often from a collapsing pocket as the two tackles forced offensive linemen within inches of the quarterback. The tag team of Joseph and Richardson forces opponents to choose the lesser of two evils -- who would they rather double?

On both of Danielle Hunter’s sacks, including the one that got called back because of defensive holding on Xavier Rhodes, Richardson drew the one-on-one matchup and forced his way so deep into the backfield that Garappolo couldn’t step up into the pocket, allowing Hunter to wreak havoc off the edge.

Richardson notes the difference for him as a pass-rusher in Minnesota is being freed up to have more one-on-one battles with guards. How the Vikings rush the passer is also a new style for him.

"If I’m getting pressure in his face, I’m definitely going to have somebody up top to come back and get the sack," Richardson said. "The biggest thing I can say we do best from where I had came from [is] that we rush the quarterback as a unit."

Richardson’s body of work provides tangible achievements, like the sack he shared with Everson Griffen because he overpowered Niners right guard Mike Person to put the first hit on Garappolo before Griffen finished him off. And there are contributions that help others make big plays. On Harrison Smith’s game-sealing interception, Richardson started out rushing the guard’s outside shoulder and transitioned so quickly across his body that the guard didn’t have time to react, thus allowing Richarsson to bear down on Garappolo and force him into an ill-advised pass.

But it’s the things that don’t result in statistics that paint the broadest scope of the Vikings' elite talent at the 3-technique.

"There’s one where he explodes off the ball and he hits the guard with so much quick force that to the naked eye it didn’t really look like he hit him that hard," Patterson said. "But he hits him with such quick force and explosion and quick twitch that it knocks him off-balance. So by the time his second hand gets on him, really, Sheldon kind of held him up. But then as he was falling away, he was able to get his foot on the ground and explode back out and go make the tackle. Whereas most guys would end up falling on the ground with that guy and that he knocked over to the side. You can’t coach that."

'He's here trying to prove a point'

During his introductory press conference, Richardson offered a vague response when asked why he signed a short-term deal.

"It’s better this way," Richardson said in March.

What did he mean by that?

"The elite status of my name has been diminished a little bit," Richardson said. "Arguably I feel like I’m probably one of the top-five defensive players in the league -- me personally. But other than that, just the statistics, it doesn’t show. I had to get my game back to that level of showing on paper as well as on film because that’s just how I look at it. I feel like I make my teammates around me better."

Richardson is referring to the one sack he had in Seattle during the 2017 season. He affected the game in a handful of other ways, notching 36 pressures in a year in which he had 44 tackles (3 TFL), one interception and one forced fumble, but those numbers weren't up to Richardson's standards.

Patterson feels the same. Where he wants to see Richardson's game improve is turning his pressures into sacks. What may lead to that is refining what Richardson calls his "unorthodox" rushing style of moving side to side while being engaged with a lineman.

"The biggest thing is having him concentrate on keeping his hips downhill on the quarterback," Patterson said. "A lot of guys come into this league and they’re taught to rip through and flip their hips. If I keep my hips on my target ... I can beat (the offensive lineman) outside, I can beat him inside and I can go through him."

Perfecting his pass-rushing abilities is only part of the equation. Richardson’s mindset is focused on a clear objective: turn the clock back to the best years of his career and get the stats -- sack numbers included -- needed to land his next big deal, whether that’s in Minnesota or elsewhere in 2019.

"He’s here trying to prove a point and trying to say, ‘OK, I belong. I am one of those guys that people need to game plan around and worry about,’" defensive end Tashawn Bower said.

His motor is the highest it’s ever been all while still being the "slick-talking dude from St. Louis" who can joke around and keep it light in meetings, as teammate David Parry points out.

If Week 1 is any indication, Richardson is on his way to reinventing himself six years into his career, and he’s in a prime spot to continue doing so.

"I get a lot of help from my teammates," Richardson said. "If I’m great, that means everyone else is able to be great, too."