EAGAN — The Dallas Cowboys offensive line and star running back Ezekiel Elliott would be tough enough with Linval Joseph in the lineup but the Minnesota Vikings will now have to slow them down without their Pro Bowl nose tackle.
Mike Zimmer revealed in his Friday press conference that the Vikings will not be using DT Shamar Stephen in the middle.
When Stephen signed with the Vikings, he said he played more of the nose tackle position while in Seattle (295 of 536 snaps were at NT, per PFF) and was willing to play either three-technique or nose tackle with Minnesota.
“Here, I’m up to whatever the coaches want me to play, three [technique], nose,” he said back in March. “I’m here to work and be able to help them in run, pass – whatever they want me to do.”
Instead it will be former fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson, who filled in for Joseph last year when he missed a mid-season matchup with the New York Jets. Prior to last year the Vikings had waffled on whether to play the former fourth-rounder as a three-tech or in the middle.
“He’s much better playing the technique [of nose tackle],” Zimmer said. “Like I said before, he used to be a bull in a china shop and now he’s playing the technique. He plays hard. He’s been playing good all year long.”
“We tried him at both obviously, but I think it’s just a better spot for him,” Zimmer said.
Johnson has played 175 snaps this season 45 of which have come at nose tackle, per PFF. In his one start last year, Johnson scored a solid 67.5 grade from PFF and registered two pressures.
Of course that was against the Jets, not the Cowboys, who lead the NFL in yards per play and have two All-Pro Caliber interior offensive linemen in Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, who Zimmer called the “best guard in football.”
Overall the Vikings have slowed down opposing teams’ rushing attacks, giving up the eighth fewest yards per game but they rank 17th in yards per attempt allowed and gave up a 91-yard touchdown run to Chiefs back Damien Williams last week.
As to whether Joseph could be missing long term with his knee injury, Zimmer simply said, “he’s out.”
Since losing Sheldon Richardson in free agency the Vikings have struggled to figure out which players are the best fit for interior roles outside of Joseph and Stephen. Former fourth-rounder Jalyn Holmes has not often been active and Hercules Mata’afa hasn’t played in four of the past six weeks. Last week Stephen Weatherly and Ifeadi Odenigbo were used as interior rotational rushers.