There it was, plain as the black greasepaint smeared on Chris Hovan's face. That subtle squeeze. Invisible to most every naked eye, it was what card sharks call a tell. To Hovan, the Minnesota Vikings' ferocious defensive tackle, it was a blip that might as well have had signal flares. Before the most important snap of Sunday's game in Atlanta—the Falcons, up 20-12, facing third-and-three on their 38-yard line early in the second half of a game the Vikings were doing their best to lose—Atlanta center Todd McClure had no idea that he was practically begging Hovan to sack quarterback Doug Johnson.
Hovan enjoys letting the McClures of the league believe that he is nothing more than the flame-haired woolly beast he appears to be, thriving on instinct, chance and luck. But in truth, Hovan is faster off the snap than any other NFL defensive lineman, according to one scouting service, and he's damn smart. His head is so full of tendencies gleaned from hours of study that he recites even the most obscure by rote. Which gets us back to McClure: Hovan read the snap by watching McClure's right hand as he gripped the ball and squeezed tight, his knuckles going white from the constricted blood flow. White knuckles equals imminent snap; when Hovan saw that, it was time to go.
He collapsed the pocket enough to make Johnson rush a throw to tailback Warrick Dunn that lost six yards. The Vikings tied the score 2:37 later, forced a punt on Atlanta's ensuing possession and scored again, taking a 27-20 lead they would never relinquish.
"Poor kid," Hovan said afterward of Johnson, who struggled in the second half under Minnesota's constant pressure. "We'd gotten to him. His eyes were going everywhere. We let him off the hook in the first half. At halftime we just decided to pick it up, to tackle better. We decided we wanted to be a great team."
Which, however improbably, is what the Vikings are becoming. With their 39-26 victory on Sunday, they improved to an NFC-best 5-0. (The Carolina Panthers also won on Sunday to improve to 4-0.) It is no surprise that Minnesota, which has long had one of the league's elite offenses, has averaged 30.2 points a game, but it's shocking that the Vikings' defense has become a force too. Last season the unit ranked 26th and was largely to blame for the Vikings' 6-10 finish. This year the defense has been overhauled by new coordinator George O'Leary, and the result is 15 forced turnovers (tied for first in the league) and a respectable 16.8 points allowed per game. "We believe in ourselves, in what we're doing as a unit," Hovan says. " Coach O'Leary builds [the game plan] around how he would attack us, as if he were the other coordinator. He's meant everything to us."
No more so than Hovan, the unit's catalyst and self-styled lunatic. The 25th pick in the 2000 draft out of Boston College, Hovan is a burgeoning star who, along with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Warren Sapp and the Panthers' Kris Jenkins, is one of the NFL's finest interior defensive linemen. "I'm a disrupter, man, plain and simple," Hovan says. Or to the offensive linemen charged with stopping him, an indomitable dervish. Possessed of a tree-trunk torso, powerful hips and a low center of gravity, the 6'2", 294-pound Hovan is a blocker's nightmare.
Using his quick first step, Hovan is expert at making contact with his hands, a must for a player with short arms who's typically outweighed by 35 to 40 pounds. The constant double teams he faces have hurt his sack total (14 in three-plus seasons), leaving him largely unknown to the casual fan. "The people who matter know what Chris's value to us is. Take our interceptions," says O'Leary, referring to the team's NFL-high 13 pickoffs. "Most of them have come off hurried throws. And that's all about Chris."
Hovan sets his team's emotional tone on game day, starting with a maniacal pregame entrance that's as rousing as the signature strut of Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis. Not surprisingly, Hovan has feasted on a steady diet of professional wrestling since his childhood in Cleveland. With flowing red hair atop his bulldog mug, a squat frame covered with tattoos, and his face-paint mask, which by game time is a sweat-streaked mess, he is the Vikings' walking, flexing adrenaline shot, more than willing to let loose his inner Stone Cold.
"He's basically our 'f—- you' guy," says coach Mike Tice, grinning broadly. "He's not afraid of anyone. He came in this year knowing that our team's attitude starts with him. In camp he got into it so much with Randy [Moss] and Daunte [Culpepper] that I often had to separate them. He was saying to the offense, 'Hey, we're not giving you guys anything anymore. It's a new day' And you know what? It worked."
Vikings teammates rave at Hovan's unmatched energy level, dangerous though it may be. Indeed, Tice has had to hold Hovan out of certain drills for fear that he might injure the scout-team linemen he clubs into submission. "I'll never stop working that hard, since I can't afford not to," Hovan says. "Look, I never thought about doing this as a kid. I always thought I'd end up driving a truck, working construction. But now that I'm here, I want it all. I want what Sapp's got. I want to be the guy who's talked about for the next 12 years. And I'll do whatever it takes to get there."