The Vikings’ defense did not see much turnover during the 2019 offseason. In fact, only one expected starter, DT Sheldon Richardson, departed from the team during free agency. This left a void at the 3-technique spot, and the Vikings signed Shamar Stephen back from the Seahawks to address this need.
However, Stephen does not profile as a complete fix. While the former 7th round pick has exceeded expectations, he is not a complete player. Stephen is stout against the run, but lacks any ability to get after the quarterback, which is less than ideal for a starting 3t:
Therefore, it’s likely the Vikings will be rotating defensive linemen, subbing out Stephen for better pass rushers when the situation calls for it. The Vikings have two young players, Jalyn Holmes and Hercules Mata’afa, who both put on weight this offseason to compete for this role. With Stephen out for the first preseason game because of injury, Holmes and Mata’afa saw ample playing time. Let’s take a look at their respective performances.
Standing nearly 6’5” with 34” arms, Holmes profiled as a base end in the NFL, and the Vikings used him on the edge some last year. This offseason, due to their relative depth there, it appears they asked Holmes to bulk up and kick inside.
Holmes stands out a bit, because he is tall and long, but not as thick as you would expect a player on the inside to be. That’s fine for Mike Zimmer, who has typically preferred lighter 3ts, but it is notable. This lack of mass can create problems against the run, where Holmes regularly got driven off the ball against the Saints:
As an interior pass rusher, Holmes showed some very promising signs against the Saints. Take the two plays below, where he bull rushes the G into the QB’s lap, then works against two linemen, swimming over the second one to get to the QB for a sack that was negated by penalty:
Holmes’ length is also an advantage for him. On the play below, he is unable to win as a pass rusher, but smartly keeps his eyes in the backfield, and gets his hands up. This causes a tipped pass that the TE can’t handle, and it ends up in the hands of a Vikings’ player for a pick six:
Holmes also proved to be effective on stunts in the game, logging a sack on one play and nearly getting the QB on another. This is an interesting wrinkle that can be used to the Vikings’ advantage because of Holmes’ size. He is quicker than typically heavier DTs, which makes him looping more difficult to deal with for linemen that have to pass off a block and recover. His size also makes it difficult for TEs and RBs, who are sometimes targeted on stunts, to block him one-on-one. The advantage is clear in the plays below:
Like Holmes, Mata’afa has a bit of a unique background for a 3t. While he rushed from the interior in college at Washington State, he did so at just 250 lbs, which is much lighter than anyone performing a similar role in the NFL. After going undrafted, the Vikings tried him at a few different positions last offseason, but he ended up tearing his ACL.
In recovery, the Vikings asked him to bulk up and Mata’afa did, which lead to his move to 3-tech. Like Holmes, Mata’afa has issues standing up blockers at the point of attack against the run because of his lack of size:
Mata’afa’s calling card as a pass rusher in college was his quickness. That is also apparent in the NFL. He’s regularly first off the snap and the first player to contact and offensive lineman:
His quickness and fluidity also show up after the snap. In the first play below, he is so fast off the line and turns so quickly (along with good hand usage) that the offensive linemen is left on the ground behind him as he pursues the RB. It is rare for a DT to be able to turn a corner that quickly and with that flat of an angle. In the second play, he uses his shorter frame, hands, and quickness to split a double team and pressure the QB. He is unable to finish against Taysom Hill, who is more of an athlete than a QB, but the feat is impressive regardless:
One thing to watch out for with Mata’afa is the fact that his quickness can get exploited. In some cases, running plays can bait Mata’afa into going upfield, and then the offensive lineman just needs to redirect him or put a wall between himself and the ballcarrier to take Mata’afa out of the play, like the play below:
It is referenced a little above, but Mata’afa also shows great technique and an understanding of leverage, especially as a young player. He uses his hands very well and leverages his shorter frame to bull rush offensive linemen. This led to an additional sack and a hit (that was called for roughing the passer) in the game:
Jaleel Johnson is an outside-of-the-box idea for the Vikings’ 3t problem. Jaleel played 3t at Iowa but is a bigger body and the Vikings have played him at 1t since his arrival in the NFL. I believe they have miscast him, and there is some evidence of that in the Saints game.
At 316 lbs out of school, Johnson is a stout player. However, he struggles when he is double teamed at the point of attack against the run. This was evident on multiple plays against the Saints, where he repeatedly got driven off the ball and allowed solid rushes inside:
However, where Johnson excelled in college is in forcing and controlling half-man relationships with offensive linemen. When he’s put in a situation to do that he can still succeed. That is something that comes much more often at 3t than at 1t. In the play below, Johnson wins the half man and makes the tackle in the run game against a single blocker:
While he struggles holding his ground against two blockers, Johnson does well holding the line against a single blocker. On the below play, he holds his ground and causes the short run by the RB:
Admittedly, Johnson does not bring as much as a pass rusher as Holmes or Mata’afa, but he can still produce in that portion of the game. In the play below, he does a good job with power to knock the G back. Even better, he shows great effort after the pass is completed to chase the RB down from behind and get in on the tackle:
What should the Vikings do at 3-Tech?
While I believe that it may be in the Vikings’ best interest to move Jaleel Johnson to the 3t spot and ask Shamar Stephen to back up Linval Joseph (seriously guys, at least give Jaleel a shot at 3t), the money they paid Stephen and their roles so far clearly indicated that it won’t happen. I think Jaleel could provide some extra pass rush while not being a huge drop off in run defense if he’s not asked to fight double teams all game, but I digress.
With Stephen locked in at the position on run downs, it will be interesting to see what the team decides to do in obvious passing situations. Right now my expectation is that the team will use Jalyn Holmes, who provides better size and theoretically a bit more in run defense while still being a very effective interior pass rusher. In some instances, like third and long, they may put Holmes and Mata’afa on the field at the same time.
If I was calling the shots, I would give consideration to Mata’afa above Holmes. I think Mata’afa provides a bit more in terms of pure pass rush – he is technically advanced, being shorter actually helps with leverage instead of hurting, and his snap anticipation/quickness is a trump card that Holmes doesn’t have.
That’s not to say there’s a huge gap between the two – I think they are pretty close as players right now and don’t have an issue with either playing. This is a battle I will continue to monitor throughout the preseason to see if one player separates himself from the other.
In a 53 man roster projection, I currently have all three of Johnson, Holmes, and Mata’afa making the team. I would add our edge rushers for 9 total defensive linemen, which makes sense because Holmes (and possibly Mata’afa, many projected him to be an edge coming out of college) has the flexibility to kick outside, as that was the role he occupied last season. With 9 players along the DL, the Vikings should have the depth to keep the players fresh and impactful into the fourth quarter of games.