EAGAN, Minn. – When Mike Zimmer was coordinating top-10 defenses with the Cincinnati Bengals, his scheme was led by the interior pressure of All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins.
Cincinnati had talent on the back end, including the recently retired Terence Newman. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap were beating tackles for sacks, but it was Atkins as the three-technique defensive tackle causing the havoc in the interior by collapsing the pocket in front of the quarterback.
Zimmer might have found another disruptive force in the middle for his Minnesota Vikings’ defense.
Sheldon Richardson had a combined six tackles, second on the team, in Minnesota’s 24-16 win against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. The 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle shared one sack, contributed to one other and had three quarterback hurries.
“Sheldon played very well,” Zimmer said Monday. “Rushed the passer well, played the run good. I told him I hadn’t seen that guy before. He came out and he played really, really well.”
Zimmer said he didn’t see the level of dominance during the preseason that Richardson displayed against San Francisco. Zimmer knows what he can expect and wants to see it the rest of the reason.
“Now it’s on tape and I know what he’s going to look like and what he’s supposed to look like,” Zimmer said. “But he played very, very well. He was strong at the point of attack in the running game. He made a lot of tackles. He played real hard, pushed the pocket.
“There was two times when he took the guy with one hand and knocked him back. So he played really, really well. We need him to continue to play like that.”
Atkins developed into the perennial Pro Bowl pick and first-team All-Pro with Zimmer after being a fourth-round draft pick. In two full seasons as a starter in 2011-12, Atkins produced 20 sacks. He had another six in 2013 when his season ended after nine games.
Sharrif Floyd and Tom Johnson combined for 11 sacks while playing the three-technique spot in Zimmer’s first season with the Vikings. Minnesota has alternated players since, looking for the same consistent pressure and hopes it found its complementary piece in Richardson.
“Just fit in,” Richardson said last week about being the only new starter on defense for Minnesota, which led the league in defense last season. “Good defense, good communicating defenses, it’s not that hard to fit in. You got to just do your job on this defense.”
With Richardson providing a push inside, quarterbacks can’t step up to avoid the Vikings’ sack duo on the ends in Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter.
“Oh my god, having him shoot up the middle, I’m going to have to get my get-off even better the way that he played today,” Griffen said after Sunday’s game.
Griffen finished off one sack of 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after Richardson grabbed the quarterback by the foot. Another time, Richardson forced Garoppolo to scramble and Hunter chased him down from the back side.
“Those are the kind of things that happen,” Zimmer said.
Richardson is one piece to a defensive line that includes the three-time Pro Bowl end in Griffen, a two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Linval Joseph and the emerging Hunter, who had 25.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons.
Zimmer also hopes for a rotation to keep all of them healthy, fresh and attacking quarterbacks.
“I have confidence in all those guys,” Zimmer said, mentioning backup linemen Jaleel Johnson, Tashawn Bower, Stephen Weatherly and David Parry. “I have confidence in them. We just need to. And we’ve talked about, doing a little bit better job of how we’re going to handle that.’’
At times on Sunday, Minnesota rotated all four linemen at one time. Zimmer doesn’t want across-the-board changes.
“I think we’ll do a better job with it,” Zimmer said. “And I think it will help us down the road, but it will also help us in these particular games. Now this week (against Green Bay) will be hard, you know, because they won’t let us substitute, but we’ll just have to go out there and go.”
Brian can be found on Twitter at @MNBrianHall. Follow all the Vikings’ coverage this season at footballmaven.io/vikings