Minnesota Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen came into this season already under the microscope. Despite starting only one game in his first four years with the Vikings, the team decided to let free agent Jared Allen walk away after last season and tapped Griffen to step in as a full-time starter. They cemented this decision by awarding Griffen a five-year, $42.5 million deal in the offseason. Fans and pundits alike immediately jumped all over the Vikings' decision-making, with Forbes labeling Griffen the most overpaid player in the league. Griffen looked pretty good in his first four seasons, with 17.5 sacks in a limited role, but the Vikings were paying him like a proven veteran building block, not a youngster.
Therefore, Griffen came into the 2014 season not only filling the shoes of one of the most productive defensive ends of our generation, but also justifying a monster contract most people thought he did not deserve.
The results, initially, were not pretty. He found the quarterback four times in his first six games, but was otherwise unproductive in both rushing and passing defense. He graded negatively in both categories on Pro Football Focus -- PFF rated him as the No. 43 defensive end among 53 players through Week 6 -- and the naysayers were out in force to tell the Vikings, "I told you so."
However, everything changed in Week 7, when the Vikings traveled to Buffalo to take on the Bills. In that game, Griffen recorded 3.0 sacks along with eight tackles and a forced fumble. That opened the floodgates, and he has been untouchable ever since. He has 8.0 sacks in his last seven games and is ranked second among all defensive ends with 12 sacks on the year. Any time a player is second on a list behind only J.J. Watt, he is doing something right. The last few weeks have made PFF change their tune, and they now rank Griffen as the eighth-best end on the season and first among all defensive ends in both pass rushing and run stopping over the past five weeks.
Although sacks are always more fun to talk about than stuffing the run, the best part of Griffen's game may be his play against the run. He is known for using his long arms to hold off defenders until he is in position to attack the running back's gap. This GIF provides an excellent example of this. Watch as he moves down the line from his left end position and just keeps the lineman at arm's length as he moves into position to blow up the play.
Coming into the 2010 NFL Draft, Griffen was known as an athletic end -- he was a running back in high school -- who lacked a killer instinct and was only dominant in spurts. He fell to the fourth round in large part due to this fact, and NFL teams typically have an aversion to players who are only dynamic when they feel like it (see Fairley, Nick). It would seem that Griffen is now motivated. However, that does not detract from his athleticism. Check out his pick-six of Sam Bradford during the 2012 season.
Coming into this week's tilt with the Detroit Lions, Griffen will line up primarily against left tackle Riley Reiff. Reiff, like the rest of the Lions offensive line, has struggled through injuries and inconsistencies this season. The result has been Matthew Stafford ending a lot of plays on his backside and a putrid running game. Last week, the Lions had all of their starters back in action, so there is still hope that the offensive line can reform into the force it was during the 2013 season.
Hopefully they figure things out quickly, because the Vikings have one of the more talented defensive lines in the league. Second-year tackle Sharrif Floyd has been fantastic this year, with 4.5 sacks and 23 tackles from his interior position, and veteran defensive end Brian Robison continues to perform at a high level. In addition, the Vikings regularly blitz rookie linebacker Anthony Barr on stunts behind Griffen. (Ed. note: Floyd and Barr have both been ruled out for Sunday's game.)
In other words, the Lions offensive line will be under fire all game, and Reiff is not going to have a ton of help on double teams. I would imagine, and hope, that offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi keeps a tight end or running back handy to help chip Griffen and protect Stafford's blind side. If not, it could be a long day for Stafford, who will need some time to work against an underrated secondary anchored by shutdown cornerback Xavier Rhodes and hard-hitting safety Harrison Smith.