Linval Joseph's dirty work makes him an invaluable 'anchor' on Vikings' defense

The Vikings' stout run defense this season has been keyed by Linval Joseph's ability to beat double-teams and get into their opponents' backfield. Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports

He’s a 6-foot-4, 329-pound cardio guy. Someone with great footwork whose brute strength inspired a teammate to describe him as a ship’s anchor.

How does he describe success? “Eating.” How does he define his role? Multi-dimensional.

Meet Linval Joseph, the Minnesota Vikings' immovable object who has helped his defensive unit rise to No. 4 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game.

The nose guard does what only someone with his rare combination of size, strength and athleticism can pull off. The way he wins his matchups isn’t as sexy as the sack numbers put up by Everson Griffen or Harrison Smith’s interceptions. Joseph's masterful work might not be spotted immediately, but it has a direct impact on slowing an offense and freeing his teammates to make a play.

Minnesota’s run defense thrives in major part because of Joseph. He’s the impassable wall in the middle of the defensive line, the reason teams are averaging 3.5 yards per carry against the Vikings' 4-3 front.

“It’s like you have this big cruise ship and they set the anchor right down the middle of the ship. He’s a m-----f------ anchor. Just being honest,” Griffen said. “Big cruise ship: 80 tons, maybe 100 tons, 100,000 tons. Big, old cinder block that slides in, and nobody’s moving it.”

Joseph didn’t become a Pro Bowler last season just because of how he took down ball carriers. The Vikings know that it’s one thing to have a nose tackle who eats up his double-teams. It’s another to have one who makes a ton of plays.

“If you’re a D-line coach, at any level, and going to put together a coaching clinic tape, a lot of Joseph’s clips would be on there,” said Matt Bowen, an NFL analyst for ESPN.com. “You’re seeing an entire skill set.”

Feasting on double-teams

The offensive linemen who go up against the Vikings know they’re in for a long day of work.

A double-team with a center and guard is nearly a must in an attempt to slow Joseph’s bull rush. Cleveland learned that the hard way when the nose tackle was left one-on-one with Joel Bitonio in Week 8. Within seconds of the ball being snapped, Joseph had created the separation he needed to shimmy past the left guard and take down quarterback DeShone Kizer for his second sack of the season.

The brute force exerted by Joseph when he’s upending linemen and tossing their bodies to the side is an impressive act to witness. Being subject to it is not quite as enjoyable.

“I go against him in practice on the scout teams, and there will be times where he’ll pick me up, and I’m like, ‘Oh, God. Please, please. Not today, Linval,’” practice squad defensive lineman Ifeadi Odenigbo said.

The raw power possessed by the St. Croix native tends to be a linebacker’s best friend. When Joseph takes on a double-team, it frees up the likes of Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and others to come downhill and make a play.

“If you double him [with a center and guard], you can’t come off as easy,” Bowen said. “That guard is going to release off that double and go up to the linebacker. If you can’t hold the guy at the point of attack, now the linebacker runs free to the football.”

But as we said earlier, what makes Joseph elite is not just his ability to eat up double-teams. It’s how he can do that and make a play.

In the fourth quarter of the Vikings’ win over Green Bay, running back Aaron Jones recorded a 1-yard loss because of how Joseph handled two assignments. The nose tackle ripped through a double-team set by the center and right guard and split the double-team to engulf Jones in the backfield.

“That’s a prime example of what you want out of your nose guard,” Bowen said. “What makes him unique is how athletic he is. One thing we forget about when we talk about the big boys up front -- they’re not just double-team guys. They’re not just raw power.

“When he works laterally, he’ll be able to rip through a block, create leverage on that block, hold off that blocker and run side-to-side to make the play. He has pursuit ability, too.”

Against Baltimore, the Ravens' guards could not hold him. Joseph knew it, too.

On first-and-10 with 2:15 to play in the first quarter, the Ravens were lined up in an offset I-formation, with Alex Collins at running back.

On this play, Joseph again has two jobs. He first needs to get his hands on Ryan Jensen so the center can’t release freely to the linebacker.

“He’s thinking I have to at least take care of the center, get hands on him, so my linebacker can create an angle to the football,” Bowen said. “The second thing is I don’t think the right guard can get to me.”

Joseph was right. He blew right past Matt Skura and tackled Collins for a 1-yard loss.

“He can impact everything moving forward,” Bowen said. “Teams realize they have to chip on him at the point of attack or double him. Otherwise he’s going to make a play, and it’ll result in a negative gain. As an offense, it changes your run game if you have to game plan for the nose guard.”

Stats don't tell the story

The recipe for creating a perfectly balanced pass rush is having players who can win on the edge and force quarterbacks to step up in the pocket. Once they do, they’re met by the interior linemen who are pushing the pocket.

That’s what Joseph is best at. At his position, he isn't expected to reach double-digit sack numbers. His job is to interrupt the quarterback’s throwing procedure -- a ball disruption -- which is equally important.

“It’s not a sack, but it’s a win,” Bowen said. “It leads to an incomplete pass or the quarterback hitting the eject button and getting outside the pocket and throwing it away. You’ll see more of that from him than sacks.”

During the offseason, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer discussed Joseph's taking his game to the next level by becoming a more effective pass-rusher. But that doesn't mean he needs to be in on every third down. Zimmer is a master at moving around a lot of personnel on third down, bringing in players to rush and others who can drop into coverage.

With 11:28 to play in the first half, the Ravens utilized a four-receiver set in an attempt to give Joe Flacco a number of cross routes to throw to.

Minnesota dialed up a blitz, thus closing the edge and not allowing Flacco to go outside the pocket. Joseph forced Jensen, the center, all the way back and sat him in the quarterback’s lap.

Flacco had nowhere to step into the pocket. It resulted in the quarterback throwing an incompletion.

It isn't a tackle for loss, nor is it a pick. Nothing from that play was charted as a stat for Joseph. But stats alone don’t tell the full story of how he affects games.

Powerful ... and a professional

So much of what makes Joseph elite goes beyond his high-level athleticism, power, strength and technique. His block awareness and contact balance aren’t just products of four years in Zimmer’s defense.

It’s the subtle things he does, according to the Vikings' coach, with how he sees the offense, the splits and the formations. The intangibles he displays in knowing how to read a quarterback's tendencies and waiting for the moment to strike like a predator hunting his prey make him the total package.

“Everything happens so quickly,” Joseph said. “You can’t go in thinking you’re going to do one thing. Most times when you make a big play, it doesn’t happen like that. You’re running and -- boom. Everything’s happening in front of you, and you’re just lucky enough to be in the right position. You can’t coach that. You’re just trying to do the best you can do, which is technique.”

Most days after practice, Joseph goes straight from the field to the elliptical, logging miles of cardio to keep his conditioning in top shape.

His natural balance and body control are rare for someone his size. His ability to move his feet while in contact with his blocker is an important part of his overall skill set. But none of that -- footwork, hand placement, etc. -- matters if he can’t execute it for an entire game.

“The first thing that happens when you get tired is your technique goes,” Bowen said. “It’s natural. Your mind tells you, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ The first thing that happens is you don’t use your hands as much, pad level rises. Now you’re not getting the leverage you’re supposed to. You can’t come off the ball with as much speed because you can’t get in your stance because you’re tired. That’s why those big guys do that.”

But rarely will teams ever see Joseph tired, thanks to how much work he puts in off the field to make sure he’s able to affect the game, on both plays that show up on the stat sheet and those that don’t.

“How professional he is and how focused he is, that rubs off on the younger guys like me,” Odenigbo said. “That’s a Pro Bowler -- not a Pro Bowler by chance. He’s a freak athlete, but he turns it up."