EAGAN, Minn. -- One entered this season coming off neck surgery; the other played elsewhere in 2020 and came back to an entirely differently role.
Yet once Minnesota Vikings teammates Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen step on the field and glance at each other before the ball is snapped -- a look that affirms the two are in the process of becoming a quarterback’s worst nightmare -- there is little doubt in their pass-rushing prowess. Over five of the past six seasons, when Hunter and Griffen are on the field together, the Vikings’ pressure rate (32%), sack rate (8.3%) and yards per play (5.0) lead the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Neither played for the Vikings last year with Hunter sidelined because of a herniated disc that required surgery and Griffen testing the waters as a free agent with the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions.
After struggling without its top two edge rushers in 2020 and recording a franchise-worst 23 sacks, the Vikings prioritized improving during the offseason. That included making sure Hunter, 26, was where he needed to be physically and getting a few contractual kinks ironed out before training camp. It also meant bringing Griffen back to shore up the spot opposite Hunter, even if the 33-year-old didn't start.
Through three games, the Vikings are tied for fourth in sacks (10) with Hunter nearing the top of the league’s leaderboard with four of his own. That includes a three-sack performance against Arizona, which is no small feat against the league’s slipperiest quarterback in Kyler Murray.
That’s an impressive start for any player, especially one whose status coming into the season was a major question mark for the Vikings’ defense.
Would Hunter look like the same player he was before the neck injury? His 16 total pressures, which is tied for the third-most in the league, seem to indicate the answer is yes.
“It’s not a 32-year-old coming off an injury and having to miss a year,” assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. “He’s still young, so there was no doubt in my mind, as long as he was healthy, that he was going to play like he plays. Plus, the type of person that D is, even though he wasn’t playing, he was studying himself. He was making me videos of him and how he played in the run and the pass, so it wasn’t that he wasn’t keeping his mind on football. He was still doing that too. There was no question in my mind about that.”
Hunter was cognizant of being patient in his return, making sure to differentiate between being fully healthy and being in football shape as the weeks wore on in camp. He surprised himself with how good he felt against Cincinnati. After two more games, there was no doubt that he was back to normal.
“I feel like I’m back,” Hunter said. “Definitely conditioning wise, I feel great. Go out there and do what I need to do to put my team in position to win games. Not just me but the whole defensive line.”
Midway through the third quarter of Minnesota’s 30-17 win over Seattle, Griffen blew past Seahawks left tackle Duane Brown with an inside spin move and twisted inside of defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson to take down quarterback Russell Wilson. He gave Hunter props for his outside rush which helped him do his first "Sack Daddy" dance in a Vikings uniform since last in the 2019 season.
This is a new role for Griffen, who is rotational pass-rusher for the first time since early in his career. D.J. Wonnum starts opposite Hunter at defensive end, not Griffen who held down the right defensive end job from 2014-19.
But what’s being asked of Griffen, especially his ability to rush as a three-technique, has provided this pass rush with an element it was missing.
“I'm just here to help in any way, inside, outside, just trying to get a feel of I'm just not studying one guy,” Griffen said. “In the past I used to just study the left tackle. Now I've got to study the guard, I've got to study the center, I've got to study the other guard, I've got to study everybody because I'm moving around the whole offensive line. Wherever they have me go and wherever they have me play I just need to keep on getting in my groove and keep on helping this team win.”
Patterson made a conscious effort to ease Hunter back in strategically so when the season started, there were no restrictions.
He’s taking a similarly strategic approach with Griffen, whose snap numbers look different but are yielding explosive results.
“The wear and tear on your body, as many years as you’ve gone playing 60-65 plays every game, so I’ve just got to make sure that I do a good job of not overplaying him and wearing him out because this is a long marathon for the season, and we’re going to need him the whole season,” Patterson said.