Everyone wants to know who the next big thing is, and watching defensive tackles play is hard on TV. Matt Weston is about to make you part of a select club who know just how good Linval Joseph is before he makes the Pro Bowl and gets All-Pro nominations.
Playing smart football has led the Minnesota Vikings to an 8-3 record and first place in the NFC North. They bash teams with Adrian Peterson, let Teddy Bridgewater manage the game, field a fringe top-10 defense ‒ their numbers are skewed by the San Francisco game as Aaron Schatz notes in his week 10 DVOA breakdown ‒ and have won close games against an easy schedule up to this point. A large reason is the play of defensive tackle Linval Joseph. The seventh year veteran has blossomed in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 under front scheme, and presents offensive coordinators challenge. His strength, technique, and motor have made him one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL this season.
Minnesota plays a traditional 4-3 defense. With 1- and 5 technique linemen on the weakside of the formation, and 3- and 6 techniques on the playside. Rather than have their defensive line play strictly on one side of the field or the other, they line up based on strength, and Joseph plays nearly all of his snaps as the weakside defensive tackle.
Playing on the weakside positions Joseph to make tackles; he deals with one-on-one blocks and quick double teams. Rather than spend an entire game fighting strong double teams playside like Sharrif Floyd does, Joseph sits in the center of the defense, controls the first block, reads the backfield, and makes tackles.
Beating the Double Team
This play is a perfect representation of how Joseph plays in this scheme. At 6’4” 330 pounds, he’s too colossal for one man to block. It’s easy to think of defensive tackles as huge slogging fixtures, and Joseph is certainly enormous. Joseph does not, however, slog. Rather, he uses his feet and great lateral quickness to move all over the line to bring down the running back.
Even when a play is called that leads to him being double-teamed, Joseph is strong at the point of attack, hard to move, and can still disrupt the play. The Oakland Raiders are running an inside zone play to the strongside of the formation (left). Joseph is playing his usual spot as the weakside 1 technique. He’ll be taking on an “ace” block ‒ a double team between the guard and center that extends to second level and the weakside, “Will”, linebacker.
The ace block initially swallows him up. Joseph can barely fit through a standard doorway, but, at this moment, he’s invisible, covered by center Tony Bergstrom (#70) and right guard J’Marcus Webb (#76):
Note, though, that the center and guard don’t come together completely; they aren’t hip to hip. It takes perfect form to move Joseph backward; any small chasm undermines their ability to generate the force needed to drive Joseph back. Also Joseph is lower than both offensive linemen; their hips are only slightly bent while the defensive tackle is at a 45 degree angle with the ground.
Murray has the ball and is looking for a hole on the left where the play is designed to go. There’s nothing open. The playside “deuce” block wasn’t able to get movement, and the defensive tackle does an incredible job taking on both blockers. Murray now has to bend this run to the right and find a new route:
Joseph shrugs off the block, takes a step inside the hole with his left foot, and catches the ball carrier in his arms. Most of Joseph’s tackles look like this; he’s usually engaged when he wraps up the ball carrier because of the limited amount of space he thrives in:
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As a 1 technique Joseph plays directly across from the center. He’s closer to the football, which means he is blocked immediately. Because of how close he is to the ball there’s not a lot of options on how to block him. He’s either double teamed or intended to be blocked by one man. It sometimes looks as easy as sticking his arm out from the block, wrapping the running back up, and tossing him to the ground – but it is not.
On this play, Joseph is a 1 technique on the weakside of the formation, matched up against the center. The St. Louis Rams are running a play action pass, and the extra seconds let him make a difference:
The defensive tackle pops the center’s left shoulder and then reads the quarterback, watching the mesh point for the ball. Controlling the outside shoulder of his opponent, he can shove, get separation, and follow the ball carrier. He’s in a keen spot:
Joseph’s play strength allows him to disengage from blockers routinely, and he has no trouble putting Tim Barnes on his heels with a strong punch.
Having seen the ball the whole way, Joseph will change course, pursuing the quarterback. He re-engages with Barnes, who delivers his best punch to the Vikings lineman, but Joseph counters with his right arm, re-directing the center’s hands, avoiding the blow, and preparing to dispose of the center:
With his left arm Joseph rips through Barnes and gets off the block. He quickly closes on quarterback Nick Foles and delivers the hit:
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While Joseph has the skill to rush the passer, he doesn’t have the ideal body for it. Where he excels is in his ability to shed, defeat down blocks, and flow to the point of attack in the run game. Exceptional hands get him off many blocks, and he has the pure strength to bullrush offensive linemen onto their backs. He does not, however, have the top end speed to make a consistent impact as a pass rusher. His sacks tend to happen when there’s a slow developing pass play, or when the coverage sticks to receivers.
But as you can see, Joseph presents offensive coordinators a unique challenge. His strength, technique, and motor make him one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL.
Follow Matt on Twitter @Mbw987.
Matt Weston is a regular contributor to Battle Red Blog and has written about the perils of drafting tackles, Eric Fisher’s footwork and play strength, and Luke Joeckel’s development.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.