Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. Also a published author, Coller writes a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
Little experiment: Think to yourself about what would make you smile for 30 minutes straight. Not a lot of things, right?
Well, the Twin Cities media found out on Wednesday what makes nose tackle Michael Pierce that happy: Returning to football.
Pierce brought the joy of a kid on the last day of school to his first Zoom press conference since opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns.
“It’s super, super great to be in the building, it’s super great to be in a football regiment again,” Pierce said to open the Zoom call. “I’m blessed to be here, I’m super excited.”
Pierce was inside TCO Performance Center getting the full free agent experience that he missed out on last year. It was an idea hatched by Minnesota Vikings co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson to allow him the exciting signing day as 2021 free agents Patrick Peterson and Dalvin Tomlinson.
You can understand why the Vikings’ new happy-go-lucky defensive lineman was so pleased to be in an NFL building again when you know what he went through last year.
Pierce’s decision to sit out wasn’t easily made. When the league set a deadline for opt outs, protocols were just being formed and Vikings trainer Eric Sugarman contracted COVID. Pierce took note of rising rates of spread at the time and talked with his doctor about the potential repercussions of getting COVID with his upper respiratory issues and decided it wasn’t safe to play.
“There were, for sure, many times where I would say ‘Dang, I could’ve been out there,’” Pierce said, adding there were times that he had some regrets about opting out after seeing how the NFL implemented its protocols throughout the year.
But the season away from the game provided plenty of perspective for Pierce. He got a window into what retirement will be like. He became a dog owner, a philanthropist and briefly learned some piano (but couldn’t master a second song after learning Mary Had a Little Lamb).
Pierce became a football fan too. Like most of the nation, he formed a Sunday routine. He’d ride his Peloton bike, go to church and then make himself some food and sit and watch.
“I watched every game, I live-tweeted just like a fan,” Pierce said. “It gave me a different perspective. Like I said, I haven’t really met any of these guys in person...so I got to know these guys through a TV screen, like fans would. I had like two TV setups in my house and a computer. NFL Gameday was like a big thing for me on my computer -- watched the Vikings, and whatever team that my friends would play on, like the good matchups around the league, I watched them.”
While that sounds like a great day for most of us, Pierce wanted to be out there. He watched the Vikings give up 52 points to the New Orleans Saints on Christmas day and thought of how things would have been different if he’d been stuffing the middle.
“I’ve been playing this game since I was 4, haven’t taken a year off until this year,” he said. “So it was different. Obviously, I pride myself on being one of the better defensive tackles in this league. I saw a lot of plays I felt like I could’ve made and helped personally.”
He definitely could have helped. The Vikings gave up the fifth most yards rushing in the NFL in 2020 and ranked 23rd in yards per attempt allowed. Only in Mike Zimmer’s first year as a defensive coordinator did one of his defenses perform worse against the run than last season.
Pierce didn’t just spend his time watching games on Sundays, he studied the specific ways in which he could fit into the defense upon return. Patterson communicated with him throughout the year and he kept his iPad to be ready to roll this season.
When it comes to his fit with a defense that so desperately needs him, one comment from Pierce in particular stood out: He wants to hit some quarterbacks, which he wasn’t often able to do often in Baltimore.
“[The Vikings] allow [nose tackles] to do more things in the pass rush game than we would say in Baltimore, but that depends on scheme and all that kind of stuff, without getting too technical,” he said. “Especially with the Ravens, like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil and those guys, those guys drive that defense. Obviously they've had Griff here, we still have Danielle, but they depend on the nose tackles to do stuff in the pass game as well as the run game and that's kind of where I came here.”
The Vikings certainly didn’t get any kind of pressure out of their defensive tackles last year. Out of 53 starting DTs, Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson ranked 52nd and 53rd in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity percentage. Any pressure at all from Pierce and Dalvin Tomlinson would be a big improvement.
Maybe he’ll be a little quicker this time around too. The 341-pounder, who joked that nose tackles aren’t expected to be “figurines,” noted that he spent time understanding nutrition better in order to be ready when the time comes to step back on the field.
“CrossFit took a lot of bad weight off of me, and I feel like I’m in great shape,” Pierce said. I think the strength staff would agree with that today. I’ve been ready to roll, man.”
We’re a long way from training camp but Wednesday’s pleasant press conference gives some confidence to the idea that Zimmer’s rebuilt defense can take a big step forward from last year’s disaster.
Beyond projecting his impact on the field, it was significant that Pierce brought a smile for 30 minutes on a Zoom call. It might not sound like a big deal but it’s been a tough year for the Vikings and there haven’t been many energetic, excited Zoom press conferences. If it wasn’t the stress of losing games, it was dealing with COVID issues and protocols, fanless games and the extra weight following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Players have rarely sat comfortably and talked the way they would at their lockers before COVID on these Zoom calls. Wednesday’s chat felt like old times for a half hour.
So maybe the Vikings organization needs Pierce’s energy this year as much as it needs a run stuffer.