‘Meaty boys’ in the middle seek to transform Vikings’ defensive line

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The conversation, between the two men in the middle of the Vikings defensive line and a reporter, shifts from their similar southern upbringings and mutual friends to the ways they are different. Michael Pierce points toward the Minnesota Røkkr headquarters just south of the Vikings' practice fields in Eagan, and starts in on a story about the free gear the e-sports team has been sending Dalvin Tomlinson.

"He's streaming video gaming, and I'm learning [from him] how to build computers; I don't intend on doing any of that," Pierce says. "But I'm learning, man. Apparently he's very accomplished; the whole campus over there is sending him all this stuff."

"Oh, stop, bro," Tomlinson interjects with a deep laugh.

"I'm saying — they're sending you all this stuff!" Pierce continues. "Obviously, they don't just do that for everybody."

The banter is constant between the two defensive tackles, who have lockers next to one another, share house-building ideas with one another on Instagram, and pass the time between practice drills with idle conversation. Pierce is the more gregarious one, who describes his style of playing nose tackle as "a bull in a china shop," while Tomlinson is a bit more reserved with his words and more technical with his movements, using the balance and spatial awareness he developed as a Georgia state heavyweight wrestling champion to beat blockers in the NFL.

They are not an odd couple so much as peers with different approaches to the same trade: trying to master the often-overlooked art of commanding several feet of space in a quagmire of 300-pound men. As much as any two players on the Vikings roster, Pierce and Tomlinson are being counted on to fortify a defense that lost its way last year.

Three times in Mike Zimmer's eight years as coach, the Vikings have opened free agency with a multi-year deal for a defensive tackle. The first free agent they signed in 2014 was Linval Joseph, who made Pro Bowls in 2016 and 2017 as the Vikings harnessed his pure strength and their defense reached its peak.

But the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their pivot from Joseph to Pierce in 2020, as Pierce's concerns about his asthma history led him to opt out of the season after signing a three-year, $27 million deal. The decision delayed by a year the start to his time with the Vikings and exposed the deficiencies in the middle of a defense that gave up 463 rushing yards in two December losses that kept them out of the playoffs.

So on the first day of free agency this year, the Vikings added Tomlinson, planning to line him up next to Pierce with the idea both men — the "meaty boys," as middle linebacker Eric Kendricks playfully put it early in training camp — can pass rush and neither will give much ground against the run.

"It all starts in the middle," co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson said. "If you've got a big guy in the middle and they've got to commit to put two people on him, to move him and get him handled, it makes the 'backers behind him better. If they can single-block that guy, and move a guard or center fast from the line of scrimmage, he's able to get up on the linebackers. Having a big body that's physical and also can move makes your defense so much different."

When teams don't have that luxury, defensive end Stephen Weatherly said, "it's obvious."

The lack of an interior presence short-circuited the Vikings' 2020 season; the Pierce/Tomlinson tandem is one of the big reasons the team is confident 2021 will be better for the defense.

On runs toward him, Weatherly said, he can have confidence one of the tackles will build a wall that keeps the running back from bouncing the ball outside. Instead, the ball carrier is forced to turn back toward the middle, where the other tackle is closing fast.

"Knowing that's going to be there constantly in the middle, no matter which way a team decides to run," Weatherly said, "helps us swarm to the ball."

'You can't pass it up'

The search that led the Vikings to Tomlinson initially looked like it might take them in another direction.

With Pierce returning to play nose tackle in 2021, the Vikings were intent on upgrading the three-technique tackle position next to him this offseason. Patterson watched film of all the free-agent defensive tackles last winter, and remembered how much he had liked Tomlinson coming out of Alabama in 2017. His search wasn't specifically for another run-stopping tackle, though; he needed a specific position filled, and he wasn't sure if Tomlinson fit.

"I go, 'This guy's a good player — a really good player — but we don't need a nose guard,'" he said.

But then Patterson remembered something from the work he had done on Tomlinson before the 2017 draft: Tomlinson had played three-technique at Alabama. That sent Patterson on a search for examples of Tomlinson doing it in the NFL, and he found exactly what he was looking for: almost a year and a half of Tomlinson playing the position for the Giants at the beginning of his career while lining up next to Damon Harrison.

Patterson told the Vikings front office Tomlinson needed to be their top target, sending them to watch the film he had found. Then came the process of selling Tomlinson on the idea when the free-agent negotiating period started. That was aided by a couple connections he already had to the Vikings; he'd had a long conversation with Patterson before the 2017 draft, and Tomlinson played at Alabama with Ryan Anderson and T.J. Yeldon, Pierce's teammates and friends from Daphne High School.

Even if it would mean switching positions from the one he had played the past few years in New York, Tomlinson bought into the idea quickly because of the impressions he had already formed of Patterson and Pierce.

"I already knew of him, and I would see film of how destructive he was in the middle," Tomlinson said of Pierce. "To be able to play alongside something like that, you can't pass it up."

Recalling the Williams Wall

When Pierce opens up his phone and checks social media, he is frequently met with references to the Williams Wall, the run-stuffing tandem that Kevin and Pat Williams formed from 2005 to '10.

The Vikings allowed the fewest rushing yards in the league each season from 2006 to 2008 (when both Williams made the Pro Bowl every year), and finished second in 2009. They will induct Kevin Williams into their Ring of Honor this fall.

It suffices to say matching the Williams Wall won't be easy for the Vikings' new tackle tandem, and Pierce and Tomlinson know it.

"Fans have been blowing me up about it," Pierce said. "Obviously, that's like super-super lofty, with no games being played yet. Before I even get to that, I want to make a Pro Bowl and an All-Pro first."

"Exactly," Tomlinson chimed in. "It's a long journey."

The game has also changed since then; the eight seasons with the fewest run attempts per game in NFL history all occurred from 2013 to 2020. Teams incorporate more spread formations and throw more frequently on early downs, meaning mountainous tackles like Tomlinson and Pierce have to do more than just stop the run.

Tomlinson posted 3 1/2 sacks in both 2019 and 2020 while playing nose tackle; his position shift has him excited to operate with more space than he had at nose. Pierce was largely asked to occupy blockers in the Ravens' 3-4 front; he caught Patterson's eye with a pass-rushing move during an early training camp drill, and the coach pulled him aside afterward to say, "Don't let anyone ever tell you you can't rush the passer."

Pierce's first move to learn more was to ask Tomlinson for his advice.

"He introduced me to a few things I want to learn how to master," Pierce said. "It's been me not only knowing I have that responsibility now, and I have some more freedom than I had in Baltimore, but also learning from him, learning from Sheldon [Richardson] and learning from 'Dre, because he did the same thing for Linval when he came here. Not only do I want to be the best nose guard in the game at stopping the run, but I want to have a complete game."

The self-effacing tackles are quick to point out it's not just about them, highlighting Richardson's role in the defense, praising the improvement they have seen from Armon Watts and the standard set by Danielle Hunter.

But during the Zimmer and Patterson era, there is no defensive position on which the Vikings have spent more in free agency than defensive tackle. Two years' worth of effort has now brought together a pair of players who speak as if it was almost destined for them to work together.

"When you have that connection off the field, and you go on the field, you have more to your 'why,'" Tomlinson said. "I want to play good for the guy next to me, because if I mess up, it makes it look like he messed up. I don't want to put my mess-up on his tape. I want to give it more, and I have more responsibility every time I step on the field, because I want to play better for the guy next to me."

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