LOS ANGELES -- During a six-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings, Linval Joseph established himself as one of the NFL's premier nose tackles. Surrounded by elite pass rushers like Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, Joseph handled the dirty work inside, absorbing multiple blockers, funneling the ball to his teammates, cleaning up the plays that stayed inside, and earning two Pro Bowl nods in the process.
Joseph intends to do much of that as a member of the Los Angeles Chargers, who signed him last month to fill a massive void in the middle of their defensive front. Once again, he will clog running lanes and open up opportunities for his talented teammates on the edge, this time Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
However, Joseph expects his role with the Chargers will also include something he hasn't done as frequently in recent years: rush the passer.
When he first arrived in Minnesota, Joseph stayed on the field in passing situations, a rare situation for a nose tackle. He finished top-4 on the team in quarterback knockdowns in three of his first four seasons with the Vikings, recording 41 in total along with 11 sacks. Over that span, only one defensive lineman over 320 pounds delivered more hits on the quarterback (Akiem Hicks, 51) and only three produced more sacks (Hicks, 20.5; Marcell Dareus, 17.5; and Johnathan Hankins, 12.5).
Joseph draws a distinction between a "true nose" and an "athletic nose." Unlike massive defensive linemen of the past such as Vince Wilfork or Ted Washington who lined up almost exclusively as a "zero-technique" (positioned directly over the center), Joseph has played the one-, three-, and four-technique during his career. That versatility puts Joseph squarely in the latter category and has allowed him to rack up sacks and finish in the top 10 for tackles among nose tackles.
"With the nose position, those guys really don't get sacks and only get about 20 or 30 tackles a year," Joseph says. "I'm the type of person who likes to chase the ball and help the team out any way I can."
But Joseph's role began to shift over the last two years, with the starkest change coming in 2019. The Vikings took him off the field more frequently on third down and other obvious passing situations, reducing his chances to generate pressure and factor into the pass rush.
"I had a feeling the last six games they were taking off the field a little bit," Joseph says. "I was trying to figure out why. And coach said one time, 'We need to evaluate the younger players.' Once I heard that, my antennas kind of went up."
The sudden change in Joseph's role last season certainly seems curious. During the final month of the year, the Vikings found themselves in the middle of a hotly contested division race. With wins in the final two games, they would have clinched the NFC North and likely a first-round bye in the playoffs. Minnesota would have benefited from more, not less, Joseph in those matchups.
Instead, Joseph saw his workload cut down. From Weeks 1 through 13, he played on nearly 70% of their defensive snaps and only fell below 60% twice. Over the last three games, he maxed out at just 58% and registered a season-low 44% in a Dec. 15 matchup with the Chargers. The Vikings left him inactive for the season finale as a healthy scratch.
"That's over my head," Joseph says. "I do what I'm told. They said, "We're going to sit you this week." That motion started that week, and I just couldn't understand why.
"Looking back at it now, I'm like, 'Wow, I see what they were trying to do.' They were trying to see the value they had with the younger team if they had to make tough decisions because of the salary cap."
Ultimately, the Vikings couldn't find the cap room to bring back Joseph, who landed a two-year, $17 million deal as a free agent. Now, the Pro Bowl nose tackle brings his talents to Los Angeles where he sees a defensive line set up similarly to the unit he anchored in Minnesota.
"Two young, explosive guys," Joseph says of new teammates Bosa and Ingram. "I'm excited to have them. I feel like having those two guys, hopefully the quarterback will step up and I'll be able to put my hands on him."
But for that plan to work, the Chargers need Joseph to handle the lion's share of defensive snaps and return to form as a pass rusher. Joseph expects the coaching staff will give him that chance.
"They're saying just be ready to pin your ears back and get after that quarterback," Joseph says. "I'm very excited about that. My whole career, I've been waiting for an opportunity to do that, and I finally got the OK that that's what I'm going to be doing more than just being an absorber. I'm excited to put my hand down and kick my foot back and get off the ball I used to do in college."
-- Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. Follow him on Twitter: @by_JBH