EAGAN —The Minnesota Vikings have a history of great defensive lineman that could be its own museum.
From the Purple People Eaters to Doleman/Millard/Thomas to John Randle to Jared Allen to Griffen/Hunter, there has hardly been a time in the Vikings’ existence in which opposing quarterbacks were comfortable in the pocket.
Now with the signing of Za’Darius Smith, they have a chance to roll out one of the most dangerous pass rushing duos in the NFL again. And it turns out that Hunter spoke it into existence.
“Going into the Pro Bowl 2019 I got a chance to sit down with him and talk to him and he was like, ‘Man you never know Z. We may end up on the same team,’” Smith said. “He really said that and he actually signed a jersey and it has that on the jersey from 2019. So yeah big shout out to Danielle Hunter man. I’m happy to be here to get a chance to play with him.”
Last season Hunter and Smith both dealt with injuries but it wasn’t long ago that they ranked among the best of the best at chasing quarterbacks. In 2019, Smith led the NFL in quarterback pressures (per PFF) and Hunter finished second, totaling 181 between them along with 28 sacks.
The new duo is even connected by their contracts. The Vikings signed Smith to a three-year, $42 million contract on Tuesday and restructured Hunter’s contract to create cap space that would allow them to sign Smith.
Smith smiled at Tuesday’s press conference when he was asked about a tweet that referenced a famous quote from Vikings legend Carl Eller.
“I got a chance yesterday to go to the museum and they were just telling me a lot of things about a lot of history here and they were like these four guys right here were in the Pro Bowl at the same time. I was like, ‘No way,’” Smith said. “It said Purple People Eaters and I was like OK, Meet at the quarterback. That’s some slogan that we can keep going here and hopefully be going for the next couple of years.”
While the Vikings had one of the league’s best pass rush combinations already with Hunter when Everson Griffen was at his peak, this pair is going to be a little different. Griffen and Hunter were rarely bumped off of their RDE and LDE positions. In his three seasons in Green Bay, Smith was used all over the field, becoming one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NFL. Per PFF, he played 828 snaps in 2020 and the most he spent in one spot was 328. He rushed from both outside linebacker spots, defensive tackle, defensive end and even inside linebacker.
Smith said before he spent time with new Vikings assistant Mike Pettine in Green Bay, he’d never moved around the defensive front.
“He saw it before I even saw it, we practiced it a couple times and I became dominant at it,” Smith said. “He made situations made for me where he could create one-on-ones, for me basically to go one on one up on the center, or up on the guard or on the tackle. It's big man for me to move around like that I can go now watch film on each and every guy and pick the weakest link.”
Nobody knows the truth behind that more than the Vikings. In four games against Minnesota between 2019 and 2020, Smith racked up 17 pressures and had 3.5 sacks in one game. Tackle Brian O’Neill texted Smith that he was happy to not be going against him anymore. Everyone on the Vikings should have texted him that.
Smith wasn’t interested in any “revenge” narratives about the Packers. He thanked their management for giving him a chance, didn’t directly address the possibility of facing Aaron Rodgers next year and only admitted to “a little bit” of extra motivation when the Vikings take on the Packers.
He did, however, talk about the back injury that kept him out last season. Smith said that he was suffering from a bulging disk.
“I came back in four months, got a chance to practice for three weeks before that playoff game and as you can see I’m as healthy as ever,” he said. “Just did my physical man. Everything’s clear. So excited man. Back is good.”
Having a great pass rushing duo doesn’t always equate to great defensive numbers. The question remains how the Vikings can put together a complete defense around their two stars on the edges (or wherever Smith happens to line up). Head coach Kevin O’Connell said that it starts with the pass rushers giving the defense an advantage, especially in key situations.
“Affect the passer from a variety of different spots, schemed up ways, sometimes you can just turn him loose,” O’Connell said. “I’ve watched him end a lot of football games with his ability to go get the quarterback. You get a lead, you allow him to play with that lead. Him combined with Danielle, we feel like that gives us a really, really impressive duo that can help do a lot of things defensively.”