EAGAN, Minn. — Remember when Danielle Hunter was considered a relatively unknown pass-rusher and somehow managed to fly under the radar for three seasons among the NFL’s best defensive ends?
The Minnesota Vikings set a franchise record with 10 sacks in a 24-9 win over their NFC North rivals, led by Hunter’s 3.5 sacks. The fourth-year defensive end also notched a fumble recovery for a touchdown to give the Vikings an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Dubbed a “superhero” by teammate Everson Griffen postgame, Hunter is barely scratching the surface of his prime years at just 23. Last offseason, Hunter signed a five-year contract extension with Minnesota worth $72 million.
Sunday’s performance and a sack streak that lasted from Week 1 to Week 7 show Minnesota that he’s worth every penny.
“It’s all just me going out there and taking stuff I’ve gotten from my coaches and my teammates and just putting it all together,” Hunter said. “It wasn’t me alone out there. The defensive line working together, just getting to the point, it’s all one unit.”
The Vikings’ defense pressured Stafford on 35 percent of his dropbacks, which was his highest rate in a game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Aside from Hunter’s monster day, Minnesota got an additional 6.5 sacks from Tom Johnson (2.5), Griffen (1.5), Stephen Weatherly (1.0), Mackensie Alexander (1.0) and Sheldon Richardson (0.5).
Stafford entered the day as the least pressured quarterback in the league at 20.7 percent. On top of being sacked 10 times, Stafford went 0-for-7 under duress, his most attempts without a completion under duress in his career.
“You’ve got to have guys that can rush in order to get 10 sacks, that’s pretty salty,” coach Mike Zimmer said. “You have to be able to cover, too. Making the quarterback pull the ball down is important. If he can just get back there and take his five steps and get rid of the ball, you’re not going to get a sack a lot of times.”
At some point, Vikings defenders said they began to notice their ability to get to Stafford was changing the rhythm of the game. Even as Minnesota continued to apply pressure, the Lions didn’t stray from their game plan and opt for short or intermediate throws.
“[Stafford] was looking for his throws, looking for some way to get something going,” Weatherly said. “We could tell that he was looking for a big play, a momentum-changer, and we weren’t able to give him that. Our secondary was playing amazing. I was told half of our sacks were coverage sacks and that’s just a testament to the guys in the secondary doing their work.”
Added Griffen on what he saw break down with Stafford: “He’s not poised in the pocket — his feet start moving, his eyes go down to the rush. Each and every pass-rush opportunity, once you get them behind the eight ball and they’re in passing mode, you know you can pin your ears back and you have a chance.”
The Vikings’ previous single-game high for sacks was nine, which they notched four times in franchise history. The last occurred on Oct. 25, 1993, at Chicago.