Benched No More: The Vikings’ Powerful Nose Tackle Gets Back into the Mix for Brian Flores

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Chicago Bears
Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports

Fan and analyst alike were surprised by the development: Khyiris Tonga — the Vikings’ powerful nose tackle who shined last season — had been benched in favor of 5th-round rookie Jaquelin Roy.

Standing at 6’4″ and tipping the scales at 338, Tonga offers the kind of size Minnesota is lacking along the defensive line. The next largest person along the DL is Harrison Phillips, who is listed as being 307. Tonga has the clear edge over the one affectionately known as Horrible Harry, so the prevailing wisdom was that the former Chicago Bear would be playing a critical role for Minnesota in 2023.

Instead, he was used sparingly in Week 1 and 2. From Weeks 3-5, the nose tackle didn’t even get the chance to dress. The decision to get him into the lineup and to give him a healthy portion of snaps in Week 6 was thus a notable development.

The Vikings’ Powerful DT Gets Back into the Mix

On PurplePTSD, there has been some discussion of seeing Tonga get placed on the bench.

Jan 8, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears running back Khalil Herbert (24) runs against the Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga (95) during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Tonga’s size isn’t something that can be taught; either someone is humongous or they aren’t. A lot of defensive coordinators value a massive NT since, in theory, they should be able to absorb a couple blockers while maintaining their spot along the line of scrimmage, freeing a linebacker to make a play.

Last season, the nose tackle got 276 snaps for Ed Donatell’s defense, picking up 28 tackles in the process. He also had 4 PDs, 0.5 sacks, 1 TFL, and 2 QB hits. Again, much of his value comes from soaking up blocks, a responsibility that doesn’t always lead to abundant stats but it does free up his teammates to make plays on the ball carrier.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Buffalo Bills
Nov 13, 2022; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) throws the ball against Minnesota Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks (54) and defensive lineman Khyiris Tonga (95) during second half at Highmark Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 season hasn’t gone as smoothly for Tonga. Take a look at the game log after a half dozen games:

  • W1: 9 snaps, 1 tackle.
  • W2: 12 snaps.
  • W3: Inactive.
  • W4: Inactive.
  • W5: Inactive.
  • W6: 30 snaps, 3 tackles.

Coming into the game, the Vikings knew that the Bears would be interested in running the football. After all, Justin Fields surpassed 1,000 rushing yards last season. Finding a way of corralling the incredibly gifted Fields would be a must for leaving Soldier Field with a win.

Oct 15, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Minnesota Vikings linebacker D.J. Wonnum (98) sacks Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

By the end of the game, the Bears had 36 rushing attempts for 162 yards. So, not a dominant effort from the Flores crew, but it’s hard to be overly concerned with the result. Minnesota’s offense did essentially nothing in the second half — calling into question the team’s identity without Jefferson — and yet Chicago could only put together 13 points.

Yes, a stifling run defense is the goal but escaping a road game while only allowing 13 points is an outcome Flores will always accept.

In Week 7, the Vikings will take on perhaps the best team in the NFL: the San Francisco 49ers. Kyle Shanahan is a brilliant tactician, someone capable of getting his playmakers open with regularity. Expect SF’s head coach to lean on a hearty portion of runs to gain an advantage.

Let’s see if Flores counters by featuring his largest defender to create a traffic jam along the line of scrimmage. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. CDT inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

Editor’s Note: Information from Pro Football Reference helped with this piece.

K. Joudry is the Senior Editor for Vikings Territory and PurplePTSD. He has been covering the Vikings full time since the summer of 2021. He can be found on Twitter and as a co-host for Notes from the North, a humble Vikings podcast.