Pelissero: Adjusting to inline, Kyle Rudolph hopes pass game opens up
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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Kyle Rudolph had been asked to block before, but never like this.
He'd never been a true inline, strongside, "Y" tight end, tasked with taking on defensive ends anytime the Minnesota Vikings run the football.
But that's what the Vikings needed Rudolph to be after they let Visanthe Shiancoe go and Jimmy Kleinsasser retired, leaving a onetime basketball star known mostly for his receiving ability to take on a rugged role in which he almost never leaves the field.
"It's something I take pride in," Rudolph said this week. "I did it in college. My freshman year, I played every snap of every game.
"It's something that, as a tight end, you're called upon in the run game and the pass game, so if you take it upon yourself to be capable in all aspects, you should never come off the field."
There never has been any question where Rudolph's strength lies, though. His listed 6-foot-6, 258-pound frame and excellent hands give him a massive catch radius that allows him to be "open" even when he's not.
He played a heavily "flexed" role in Notre Dame's spread offense as a junior in 2010 and was often detached from formation with the Vikings as a rookie, catching 26 balls for 249 yards (9.6 average) and three touchdowns while playing 46.9% of the offensive snaps.
But the Vikings looked at Rudolph's frame and saw a player who could develop as blocker, too, even though he needed a lot of work at the point of attack.
"With his size, it's going to always cause an issue for opposing defensive ends to try to have 6-6, 260 hanging on them as they try to make a tackle," tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson said.
"As long as I try to get him clean technically and he uses his hand placement and his footwork and his hat placement, he's going to be fine in inline blocking."
So far, Rudolph has played a remarkable 95.5% of the Vikings' offensive snaps, sitting out a dozen plays on Sept. 23 against San Francisco and playing every down in the other three games.
Of his 254 snaps, Rudolph has played 165 inline (65.0%), compared to just 62 detached from formation (24.4%) and 27 in the backfield (10.6%). Run blocking remains a work in progress, to say the least, although his performance in Sunday's win at Detroit was his most competent to date.
"You're never going to be stronger than the guy you're going against in this league," Rudolph said. "It's a technique thing and a fundamental thing that allows you to be a good run blocker."
The Vikings weren't the only team that figured Rudolph had upside as an inline player before they selected him 43rd overall in the 2011 draft.
An executive for another NFL team that studied Rudolph closely called him an "average-level" blocker at Notre Dame, where he played only parts of three seasons and missed chunks of his last season seasons because of a separated shoulder and a hamstring tendon avulsion, respectively.
"When you saw the physical skills and you studied him, you thought you could develop his blocking ability, because the kid can sink his hips," the executive said. "He wasn't stiff by any stretch of the imagination. He could bend. Even in the pro-day workout, he showed his willingness to stick his nose in there on the bag drills and try to block people, and that's half the battle.
"You just want to know, can you develop these guys? Heck, Jason Witten (the Dallas Cowboys' seven-time Pro Bowl pick) wasn't much of a blocker at Tennessee. The knock on him was blocking, and I think Jason has developed himself into being one of the more complete tight ends in the game."
In an NFL game increasingly featuring big receivers disguised as tight ends, Witten (6-6, 265) may be the closest comparable to Rudolph, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.78 seconds at his pre-draft campus workout and never will be confused for a speed threat.
Rudolph's dominant trait is his size, which allows him to make plays on the ball even though he rarely creates separation against man coverage, no matter who's covering him.
"You feel comfortable and strong enough that even when he's covered, he can find a way to make a play," Johnson said. "We look forward to trying to find matchups with him in linebackers or some safeties that don't cover well. We think he can expose those guys each and every time."
Rudolph has been targeted 21 times this season, not including throwaways, and ranks second on the team with 15 catches (71.4%) for 146 yards (9.7 average).
Eight of his catches and all three touchdowns have come from the inline position, where defenses sometimes struggle to pick him up because they don't know if he'll block or go in pattern.
"I don't know if he necessarily poses a threat to a coordinator to say, 'We need to stop this guy because of his speed, because of his explosiveness,'" the NFL executive said. "Being a 4.80 40 tight end, I think he's never going to be able to be the true detachable matchup player.
"I think he'll be good in zones. I think he'll be good with coverage awareness. He'll find the soft spots. He's probably going to be a good, solid, possessional receiving tight end. I just don't see a young Jeremy Shockey. I don't see a young Tony Gonzalez. I don't see a young Chris Cooley."
The Vikings may not either, which would explain their decision to move Rudolph to the "Y" and bring in another backside pass-catching type, John Carlson, on a five-year, $25 million deal in March that included $9.1 million in guarantees.
Carlson missed last season in Seattle with a shoulder injury, then suffered a knee sprain early in training camp that cost him the preseason. He has one catch for minus-1 yard and has played only 80 snaps (30.1%), including 14 in the Vikings' run-heavy attack against Detroit.
"I was surprised that they signed (Carlson)," said a personnel director for another NFL team, "because I think Rudolph's going to be really good."
Johnson said Rudolph is seeing more double teams in pattern than he did a season ago, and coach Leslie Frazier said the Lions "did some things in the red zone that game on Sunday to try to take him away."
Twice already this season, Rudolph hasn't been targeted at all in the first half. The Vikings have had internal discussions about giving rookie fourth-round draft pick Rhett Ellison more time inline and detaching Rudolph, depending on the game plan.
That could yield more receiving opportunities for a player who probably ranks as the Vikings' second best pass-catching threat behind Percy Harvin, depending how recently unsuspended split end Jerome Simpson's role evolves.
"Hopefully, we'll eventually get to that point," Rudolph said. "I caught a couple balls across the middle of the field on different plays. I think bringing Jerome back, having to respect his speed over the top, hopefully will open that up for us."
In the meantime, Rudolph knows offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave will keep calling his number early and often in the running game.
And when the Vikings get near the goal line, no matter how defenses try to take Rudolph away, there's a good chance they'll be looking for No. 82.
"Sometimes, we're trying to get the run established and it's not a big emphasis on getting him the ball right away," Johnson said. "But we know he's always a part of our passing attack each and every week. It's just a matter of when those calls get dialed up."