The man who makes the Vikings defense a nightmare for QBs
Four sacks, six tackles AND a touchdown ... there’s just no limit to what the Vikings pass rusher can do with his motor, says retired NFL defensive end Stephen White. Like a lot of people, I spent the week of Halloween watching scary movies and TV shows. Why did watching Danielle Hunter’s film give me Pretzel Jack* flashbacks? Well, he does have those long ass arms, kinda like Pretzel Jack. Hunter also displays the kind of balance that seems to defy gravity ... kinda like Pretzel Jack. He also appears to be something of a contortionist himself, moving his body at all kinds of odd angles so he can squeeze through the tiniest of cracks to sack the quarterback ... also like Pretzel Jack. Hunter and Pretzel Jack are both scary AF when they’re doing their thing, so they have that in common as well. Oh yeah, so it’s official, Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter is the Pretzel Jack of Pass Rushers. And he brought a full tank of nightmare fuel to the game with him last Sunday. After he torched them for four sacks, six other tackles, a touchdown and a pressure, the Lions offensive line is probably still waking up in cold sweats. It’s always fun to watch Hunter on film no matter how productive he is. You’re talking about a guy who, at 6’5 and a little over 250 pounds, with barely an ounce of body fat on him, makes the All-Bus team. If you were trying to building an ideal edge rusher from scratch you couldn’t come up with a much better combination of height, power, length, athletic ability and technique that you get with Hunter. On top of all that, he also has a motor that just won’t quit. He overwhelms blockers not just because he is so damn skilled, but also because he is so ridiculously relentless. If his opponent relaxes for even a second, more than likely he will out effort them and make them pay dearly. Y’all know I’m a sucker for a guy who hustles his ass off, anyway, but with Hunter it’s even more impressive to me because he is so damn good most people would probably let a loaf or two slide here or there from him. But if he’s on the field, he’s hauling ass, and that’s what I like to see! The value of hustle Just to illustrate my point, the first play of Hunter’s that I want to focus on probably wouldn’t look all that impressive on paper. Sure, he was credited with a tackle, but it was on a play that gained 8 yards. What was so impressive about this play was something that you have to actually see to appreciate, Hunter’s hustle. At 6:32 of the first quarter, the Lions were trying to get one of their wide receivers, Kenny Golladay, out in space on a jet sweep where he could stress the Vikings defense horizontally. Hunter was the left defensive end, lined up to the side where Golladay was headed. He had two Detroit tight ends lined up right across from him. Levine Toilolo was the stud tight end on the line of scrimmage in a three point stance to the outside of the right tackle, Ricky Wagner. Luke Willson was lined up outside of Toilolo and just off the line as a wing. Hunter was head up on Toilolo and cheated down inside of him just before the ball was snapped. Now with a jet/fly sweep, the idea is to give the ball to the offensive player coming across the formation while they are building up a head of steam so that they can get to and around the edge defender to the side they are headed, before that edge defender can react and try to affect the play. That’s why neither Toilolo nor Willson actually tried to block Hunter, heading outside to be lead blockers for Golladay instead. The fact that Hunter cheated inside before the snap should have made it even easier for Golladay to get around him. And Golladay did zoom right around Hunter so fast that there wasn’t much that Hunter could do but watch him run by ... at first. Most of the time once the guy running that sweep is past that edge defender, they don’t usually have to worry about him being involved in the play anymore. It’s generally just too hard for that edge guy to get off the ball, recognize the play, stick his foot in the ground, change directions and then turn and sprint down the field quickly enough that they can catch up to the runner. But most edge rushers aren’t Danielle Hunter. Once he saw Golladay cross his face, Hunter didn’t hesitate even for an instant before he had changed directions and was in hot pursuit. He got some help from his teammate, linebacker Ben Gedeon, who did a good job of taking on Willson and forcing Golladay to cut up the field a little earlier than he had planned. After that it was all about Hunter’s effort, giving everything he had to chase Golladay down from behind and limit him to an 8-yard gain. No, it wasn’t what most folks would normally think of as a “big play,” but just to see a guy like Hunter, one of the league’s premier players, giving every ounce of effort he had to chase down a receiver from behind on a random first down play, did this old defensive lineman’s heart some good. Hunter has obviously been blessed with natural gifts and abilities, and he has worked his ass off to become great with his technique as well. But what sticks out to me every week on film is how crazy his effort level is. The guy’s motor just won’t quit! Some folks are fond of reciting the quote “hard work beats talent” without adding the second part “when talent doesn’t work hard,” but let me tell you something buddy, when someone as talented as Hunter busts his ass every play, too? Listen. Listen. No move can stop Hunter But I know, I know ... you want to talk about the sacks, so let’s get into them. With a little over six minutes left in the first half Detroit had matriculated the football all the way down to the Minnesota 12-yard line, after having started the drive already in good field position from the Vikings’ 44. Hunter was once again lined up as the left defensive end across from Wagner. The biggest problem Hunter presents as a pass rusher to tackles on any given play is that he can do it all. He has a really good get off, more than enough speed to turn the corner, but enough power to be a very effective power rusher. He also has the kind of athleticism usually reserved for skill positions which can make his counter moves devastatingly effective. What that means is there is no particular move a tackle can set for with Hunter and still not run the risk of being wrong. Set for power, and here comes speed. Set for speed, and here comes power. Or, in this particular case, they might set for speed, and instead get hit with inside move so quick that their reaction makes it look like you’re doing the shoot dance. Cold world, bruh. Hunter took four long, hard steps upfield which forced Wagner to go ahead and bail out of his stance a bit. Once Hunter actually got within arm’s length, which for him is further away than for most people, Hunter shot his hands at Wagner’s chest like he was getting ready to hit him with some power. Instead, when Wagner stopped his feet to try to brace for Hunter’s punch, Hunter took advantage and slipped right by him with an arm over inside. Hunter stuck his outside foot in the ground while swatting Wagner’s inside arm with his inside arm, and finished the move by stepping inside to the B gap and swimming over the top of Wagner’s head with his outside arm. Hunter beat him so cleanly that all Wagner could do was futilely try to tackle Hunter around the waist while he continued on to the quarterback. Somehow that blatant hold didn’t get called, but it didn’t matter, because Hunter was still able to reach out and take Stafford down. It was a 3-yard loss on that play. Hunter sacked him again on the next play, too, for a loss of another yard. The second of the two sacks came on third down and forced the Lions to settle for a field goal. It also came on a busted screen play, so I didn’t feel like it was worth analyzing. Besides, there were plenty of other impressive plays that Hunter made on Sunday that are much more interesting to talk about. For instance ... There is always a way Somewhere around the six-minute mark of each quarter was the sweet spot for Hunter on Sunday. In the third quarter he collected his third sack of the game with 6:25 on the clock. He was back at left defensive end in a six-technique again. This time he was lined up across from third-string tight end, Michael Roberts. Roberts seemed to be in that position to try to distract Hunter as he went out into his route, even though he didn’t actually chip him on that play. From that standpoint, lining up Roberts across from Hunter was actually a success, even if he was only distracted for a moment. The problem is that Hunter’s such a physical freak with such good technique, he doesn’t actually need a good get off to beat a blocker. Hell, getting Hunter to hesitate for a millisecond actually seemed to put Wagner in a bind more than Hunter. Wagner looked unsure as to whether he should try to be aggressive with Hunter after Robinson slowed him down or if he should sit back and wait for Hunter to come to him. Wagner ended up kind of compromising and doing a bit of both. He held back and waited on Hunter to come to him, but he also kept his weight forward on his toes so he could be ready to sit down on a power move just in case Hunter was about that action. What he wasn’t prepared for was the way Hunter set him up, then went sideways instead. Instead of trying to just run right around Wagner, or right over him, Hunter did a slow stutter step with his hands down, appearing to expose his chest to Wagner. I’m sure it looked so inviting to Wagner, like a perfectly grilled steak to a starving man. The thought of being able to punch Hunter right in his solar plexus with all the force he could muster had to be just too good of an opportunity to pass up. Unfortunately for Wagner, there was a banana in that tailpipe. Hunter wanted Wagner to try to punch him in the chest because he knew that would give him a chance swipe Wagner’s arms and knock them out of the way. He was able to Wagner’s swat forearms with precision, and that kept Wagner from being able to getting his hands on him to grab him. Hunter swiped one more time, then he came through with a big rip move with his inside arm. Wagner’s goose was as good as cooked. There was simply no way he was going to catch up with Hunter. The thing that made this pass rush even more impressive to me was the fact that Stafford didn’t take a deep drop back on that play. He really couldn’t since the Lions were on their own 13-yard line, anyway. Stafford stopped to pump like he was going to throw to his left after dropping back 7 yards. By the time Hunter actually got to him, Stafford was actually in the process of stepping up to where he was just 6 yards from the original line of scrimmage. Hunter still found a way to take him down. It is hard to explain how difficult it is to turn a corner at that depth as a pass rusher, but I can promise you that your favorite edge rusher has a hard time doing it even when there isn’t anybody outside of the tackle, let alone after a tight end has momentarily distracted them. For Hunter to transition from coming off the ball slow at first, then turning his hips back towards Wagner and still get into a move beat him with such a tight corner? Pretty damn incredible. In fairness this was somewhat of a coverage sack since, well, everybody was pretty much covered. What I will also point out, however, is that by the time Hunter was actually taking Stafford down, the other three defense linemen in the game were on the other side of the center. One of them, Linval Joseph, actually had his back turned to the quarterback and was running down field where he thought the ball had already been thrown. I say all that to say, good coverage or not, if Hunter hadn’t been able to close in so quickly and tackle him on that play before he could really step up in the pocket, Stafford had a ton of green grass right in front of him to pick up some yards with his legs. Instead he took a 4-yard loss on first down that threw the Lions off schedule and they ended up punting three plays later. Great things come to those who hustle The last play I want to talk about showcased everything I love about watching Hunter play the game of football. Yes, I’m talking about the touchdown he scored with a little over seven minutes left in the game, but the touchdown was just the end result of all the other work he had already put in on that play. Once again he was lined up as the left defensive end across from Wagner, but by the fourth quarter I guess Detroit was tired of seeing Wagner getting roasted, so they had their rookie running back, Kerryon Johnson, offset to his side to help the big man out with a chip block. Better late than never, I guess. Hunter got off the ball and was screaming up the field trying to beat Wagner around the edge again, when here came Johnson trying to sneak him just as Hunter was starting to peek around the corner. But did Hunter let something like a measly chip block slow him down? Yeah, ok, maybe a little, but not much! Once Hunter felt Johnson hitting him, he paused briefly to re-evaluate his situation, but then he transitioned to an inside spin move that was so fluid that it looked as if he had been planning to do one all along. His teammate Jaleel Johnson was already restricting the pocket after having looped around to the opposite B gap, and Stafford was definitely feeling the heat by that time in the game. Once Hunter finished his spin move on Wagner, he was right at the level of the quarterback and in good position to take Stafford down, but he wasn’t quite able to keep hold of him after he reached out and grabbed Stafford’s jersey. As Stafford pulled away and started to scramble downfield, Hunter could have easily shut it down and left it for his teammates to make the tackle. After all, he had already beaten two guys to get to Stafford, and it was his pressure that forced him out of the pocket in the first place. But Hunter simply isn’t made that way. If anything, Stafford slipping out of his grasp and avoiding another sack seemed to make Hunter even more determined to hawk him down from behind. His hustle was rewarded when Stafford had one of his patented brain farts and for no good reason at all decided to try to pitch the ball back to Johnson who was trailing him at that point. They were way too close when Stafford tried that goofy shit, and the ball predictably ended up on the turf. I always say that good things come to those who hustle and this play was the perfect example of that. Hunter had no reason to believe that he would actually be able to catch up to Stafford in time to tackle him. He certainly couldn’t have known at the time that Stafford would make such a boneheaded play before it was all said and done. But he hauled ass after him anyway because that’s all he knows how to do. Because of his hustle, instead of having to fall on the ball, or there being a mad scramble where Detroit may have recovered it, Hunter was in perfect position to calmly pick the ball up and house it untouched to the end zone. It’s worth remembering that despite the final score which makes it look like the game was a a blowout, the Vikings were only up nine points before that play. One good drive and it could have been a one score game that went down to the wire. Hunter’s hustle play went ahead and put Detroit’s comeback dreams to bed like Zzzquil, however. You don’t earn a stat line like Hunter’s on Sunday by accident, that much is for certain. Maybe the four sacks by themselves could have been flukes, or maybe just the six tackles could have had some luck involved. Maybe even the touchdown, by itself, could have been the ball just bouncing his way. But to accomplish all of those things in the same game was indicative of the fact that that Hunter was playing on a whole other level on Sunday. He is now the league leader in sacks with 11.5, but I think they may give him a full sack instead of the half they had him sharing with Everson Griffen which would push him up to 12 on the year. If they do, that would put him just a half a sack off his career high after only nine games. He also vaulted himself right back into the middle of the Defensive Player Of The Year conversation. It still may be Aaron Donald’s title to lose, but Hunter has also been kicking ass all year, even after he lost his fellow bookend for a few weeks. But we can debate the DPOY voting at the end of the season. In the meantime, Danielle Hunter was so dominant against Detroit that he made my job this week easy. After that monster game it is my pleasure to award him my Hoss Of The Week honors for Week 9 of the 2018 NFL season. *Pretzel Jack is a character on the current season of Channel Zero, if you didn’t already know. And if you didn’t know, you really might want to check that show out. It’s dope.