As Vikings honor pass-rushing great Allen, Hunter seeks a breakthrough

The Vikings Ring of Honor depth chart at defensive line was read aloud to the 40-year-old calf-roping retiree who will be joining the eternal lineup at halftime of Sunday's game against Arizona at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Tackle: Alan Page, John Randle, Kevin Williams.

Edge rusher: Jim Marshall, Carl Eller, Chris Doleman and Ring of Honoree-to-be Jared Allen.

Career sacks: 899 ½.

"Wow," said Allen, the four-time first-team All-Pro and two-time Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist.

"But …"

You mean there's a "but" that comes with this list of all-time greats?

"We'd have a hard time playing together in today's game," Allen said. "None of us missed any games. And none of us would want to rotate like the kids do today. And …"

You mean there's another "and"?

"The way the league is handing out roughing-the-passer penalties these days, half our sacks would be taken away," Allen said. "Everything is roughing the passer in the NFL today. You breathe on the quarterback and it's roughing the passer. It's absurd. It's gone way too far."

This season the 5-1 Vikings are searching for a consistent pass rush in a new 3-4 scheme that moved Danielle Hunter from the spot where he had been building a sack-heavy Ring of Honor résumé of his own. He has only three of the team's 17 sacks, 10 of which them came two games against teams whose offensive lines were decimated by injuries.

A bigger leaguewide story line is also unfolding around quarterbacks and the defenders who are finding it more difficult to knock them down without being penalized and/or fined for doing so.

It's a familiar discussion given new life through some controversial roughing calls made earlier this month in the wake of a sack that concussed Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The scary scene unfolded in prime time four days after Tagovailoa was allowed to re-enter a game despite wobbling and falling after being hit.

Days later, Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett was flagged for "unnecessarily" throwing Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady to the ground. Then Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones was flagged for landing on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr with his full body weight despite stripping the ball from Carr and possessing it in his right arm while trying to brace his fall with his left arm.

"I see it as everybody signs on the same dotted line to play this game," Allen said. "Yes, you need to protect players. But at some point, you lose the integrity of the game. That's where we are right now."

The target audience

Asked about the Jarrett and Smith plays, Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who has spent 11 seasons adjusting to modern rules that mostly aid offenses, shrugged and smiled.

"Got to keep the TV ratings up, right?" he said. "That's the game, or something."

Smith then was asked if perhaps these controversial roughing calls could eventually turn fans away from the game. After all, people are still looking for a fair competition and …

"Are they?" Smith interrupted. "Are they? I think we're not the target audience anymore."

Smith wasn't sure if recent roughing calls were an overreaction to the Tagovailoa situation. "There's also been some pretty interesting roughing calls over the past few years," he added.

ESPN's Kevin Seifert crunched all the numbers via the ESPN Stats & Information database and noted that through Week 5, the 29 roughing calls actually were down from 54 at the same point in 2021, 41 in 2020 and 59 in 2010. The NFL Competition Committee, Seifert reported, had acted this past offseason to reduce roughing calls after 153 were called in 2021, a 12% increase from 2020.

Still, defenders will argue it's not the volume of calls that's concerning. It's what's being called in many cases and how that fundamentally changes the game.

"I saw in the 49ers game the other night how the pass rusher pulled up and didn't even try to bat the ball down," Allen said. "He was afraid that if he followed through and touched the quarterback's facemask, it's roughing the passer. I mean, c'mon. They have a helmet for a reason. The league is taking the strategy out of disrupting the rhythm of the quarterback, the offense."

"Don't say it's player safety," he added. "It's just, 'Protect the star quarterback.' One hundred percent, the NFL is hurting the game."

Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins disagrees. He said the recent controversial roughing penalties were simply mistakes made by imperfect officials who are just as liable to miss roughing calls that should have been called.

Cousins, a 205-pounder who's never missed a game because of injury in his 11 seasons, does appreciate one added protection quarterbacks have enjoyed in recent years.

"The big one is when they land on you," he said. "When a 320-pound man lands on you and you're falling from several feet in the air, it's going to be tough to stay healthy. So that was a win for the quarterbacks."

The next generation

Charged with maneuvering the modern NFL rulebook as the latest model in the Vikings' long lineage of standout pass rushers is a guy who turned 28 on Saturday.

"I've definitely looked up [at the Ring of Honor] and seen the great names that have come before me," said Hunter, whose 63½ career sacks rank eighth in team history when including players who came before sacks became an official stat in 1982.

"There are a lot of them. I think it's just a culture of passing down a work ethic from one defensive lineman to the next."

Technically, Hunter is no longer a defensive lineman. He's an outside linebacker with some occasional coverage duties in the team's new scheme, which Hunter admitted he's not yet entirely comfortable playing.

"It's something I'm still transitioning to," said Hunter, who has one sack in each of the last two games. "I've been a hands-in-the-dirt defensive end around here for like seven years. This is something new. It's coming along. Eventually, I will get there."

Asked about the lack of a consistent pass rush, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said, "We just know we have it. We have the guys we can count on. … The story will be told. We're still early."

Hunter was 25 years and 40 days old when he notched his 50th sack back in 2019. That was the fastest ever to 50 among NFL players since 1982. Extremely durable up to that point, Hunter had no idea he would miss all of 2020 after neck surgery and all but the first seven games of 2021 because of a pectoral injury.

"I'm feeling great right now," said Hunter, who had six sacks in those seven games last season, three coming against Arizona in Week 2. "KO [coach Kevin O'Connell] and the team have been doing a great job taking care of us, as you can see by our injury reports. Guys are fresh. Guys are happy.

"And I think a lot of it's on KO, man. He played football. He knows what it's like. Everything we're doing to keep our bodies fresh, it's KO's call. And we thank him for that."

Hunter has played 80.6% of the Vikings' defensive snaps with a high of 85% against the Saints and a low of 75% against the Eagles. Like Allen, Hunter hates coming off the field and feels his rhythm as a pass rusher would improve with more time on the field.

"I'm from the days from like Jared and Everson [Griffen] and B-Rob [Brian Robison], when you need to stay in the game in order to get going," Hunter said. "Nowadays, that's not easy."

Allen said Hunter has all the tools to be one of the best edge rushers to ever play the game. He hasn't watched the Vikings enough to pass judgment on Hunter's comfort level but did note that he also struggled when he was asked to adjust to this Donatell-Vic Fangio defense when the Bears changed coaching staffs in 2015. Allen didn't make it to October before he was traded to Carolina.

"It's a hard defense to transition into if you are a hand-down 4-3 guy," Allen said. "There's a lot of thinking, a lot of processing. It's different rush angles, your footwork and steps are different. It's just totally different. But give Danielle a year in it and he'll be fine."

Signature moves

No two great pass rushers in Vikings or NFL history are quite the same. Yet there is something each of them shares.

"It's like this," Randle said. "A great pass rusher looks at 1,000 doors. He's been told there is a sack behind just one of those doors. It might be the first door. It might be the last door. The great pass rusher opens every single door just as hard as he did the first door."

Allen loves that analogy.

"Each of us had or has a signature move that's different," he said. "But I think one thing we all have in common is this: violence. Violent movements. Doleman was violent in how he attacked the outside shoulder as a classic speed rusher. Marshall was violent at the contact point. Alan Page. Eller obviously was violent in his play. It's a contact sport. Violence is good."

But not always permitted.

"It's going too far." Allen said. "Quarterbacks make a truckload of money. They should be able to get hit like the rest of us."