Normally, we’d be reviewing the offensive line performance from the past week to see what went right and what went wrong. It’s a column we’ll keep going through the entire season to make sure we can keep tabs on everything that’s going on with one of the most misunderstood units in the NFL.
Since Sunday, however, the Vikings have had impactful news hit the wire: Matt Kalil has been moved to the injured reserve list with the hip injury the Vikings disclosed last week, and will have surgery, according to the team.
Matthew Coller and Derek Wetmore are pretty sure that the Vikings will be fine without Matt Kalil and Adrian Peterson, but I’m not as sure—though it’s true that the emergence of Sam Bradford as a viable (even great) starter will mitigate things.
The Vikings offense is not playing at a sustainably high level, even with excellent play from the quarterback position, to consistently put points on the board. Our weekly advanced statistics review pointed to reasons the offense can be a huge liability and why their current rate of success likely won’t continue into the future.
In short, their inability to create first downs—a problem that stems from both Adrian Peterson’s play and the offensive line’s play—really stunts their ability to overcome any gains made by the defense. They’ve also been put into unsustainably good field position.
In the past two games, two extraordinary returns from Cordarrelle Patterson put the Vikings deep into opposing territory and all Minnesota could do was settle for field goals. They also created defensive scores at an incredibly unsustainable rate in Week 1, and those touchdowns won’t come easy for the defense going forward.
They rank 27th in points per drive despite extraordinary field position (first in field position after kickoffs and fourth overall in field position for all drives) and 28th in drive success rate.
The biggest concern from that perspective was the offensive line, because there were a lot of reasons to believe that someone like Adrian Peterson could have come back from his previous lack of performance—and if he couldn’t, that Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata could reliably fill in as an able running back committee.
While McKinnon and Asiata unexpectedly will have to prove that correct, the Vikings may be forced to see perhaps the worst offensive line in the league get worse.
It might be tempting to adopt the perspective of “how much worse could it get” in terms of replacing the underperforming Matt Kalil, but the answer is that it could get much, much worse.
Individual offensive linemen give up pressure at a marginal rate in the NFL. Overall, a quarterback could be under pressure between 25 to 50 percent of the time, but an individual offensive lineman gives up pressure between 1.0 percent of the time and 8.0 percent of the time.
Think of it this way—if all five offensive linemen give up pressure at a one percent rate, the likelihood that any one of the five give pressure on a specific play is about five percent (not because you add one plus one five total times, but because you multiply 99 percent against itself five times to get a 95 percent). Add in protection from the running back and tight ends, schemed pressure where no individual is at fault and a quarterback’s time in pocket, and that will add up to pressure on about 15 percent of plays.
No line has accomplished that incredible mark, because no team has assembled the best pass protectors at their position all along one line.
Should they be at the opposite end and have individual linemen give up pressure on eight percent of plays, with a running back poor in pass protection and a quarterback late in the pocket, they’ll be under pressure nearly 60 percent of the time.
The Vikings were closer to that worst-case scenario than any other team in the last decade in their 2015 campaign, giving up pressure on 46 percent of plays.
Last week, we identified the difference for an average quarterback over the course of the season can vacillate between tenth and 28th in passing performance based on their offensive line—though Bradford’s performance on Sunday reminds us this is an estimate and not a certainty.
Not only that, Bradford is a very fumble-prone quarterback—the sixth-most fumble-prone quarterback since he was drafted and the third-most fumble-prone quarterback in 2015. An offensive line that allows more pressure and sacks will create more turnovers.
So, if the Vikings make a misstep in replacing Kalil, they could jeopardize their recently revived playoff odds—especially knowing that the success rate in pass protection of 92 percent is a historical floor, but by no means the worst possible outcome.
Sam Bradford was under pressure on just over 48 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday, but a left tackle with a severe dropoff in ability could over the next several games add three turnovers through added interceptions and fumbles, as well as reduce yardage through the air and with sacks on the ground. Not only that, blocking failures like what the Vikings saw against Jurell Casey and Mike Daniels could stonewall the running game even more than they did in the past two weeks.
The Vikings intend to replace Matt Kalil with T.J. Clemmings, which might itself be that worst-case scenario if he hadn’t improved after last year. With only three years of offensive line play in his life—a highly technical position—the challenge will continue to be enormous for Clemmings in a way it might not be for a lifelong offensive lineman like Jeremiah Sirles.
For more details, I asked Duke Manyweather, an offensive line and development consultant who has worked with numerous NFL offensive linemen—including Alex Boone—in the offseason to improve their game as a former director of personnel and performance for LeCharles Bentley O-Line Performance.
Clemmings struggled significantly last year—with Pro Football Focus’ fourth-worst pass blocking efficiency among tackles—and given what he’s put forward on film in the preseason, I asked Manyweather if it was reasonable to expect a significant upgrade over last year.
“With the traits he possesses,” he told me, “You’ve got to believe T.J. Clemmings still has tremendous upside, he’s still fairly new to the position, I believe now his 4th year playing OL. That being said, his issues are the same as they were when he was at Pitt. Inconsistent pass sets, doesn’t understand landmarks and punch-timing and overall hand usage must improve, still doesn’t quite get when he needs to make a stand to anchor. Those are all things that take time to develop if you are truly putting the time into the craft. There isn’t a magic wand that you can wave and it just happens.”
We’ll see if there’s any difference between a healthy Kalil, which we might have seen in week one, and Clemmings in the short term but if things get worse, what else could the Vikings do?
Certainly, they could fish around the trade market, though without their most valuable assets now that they’ve traded next year’s first round pick. They perhaps could try calling teams that could be out of the playoff race by the time the Vikings have to make a decision, or are stacked with talent at tackle.
The Vikings, for example, could entertain a trade with Cleveland for All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas. The value on an elite but aging talent like Thomas is difficult to figure—especially with his short contract. It might take a second-round pick and an additional player, like Jarius Wright—with Corey Coleman injured, they might be interested in another young receiver despite the plethora of pass-catchers they added this offseason.
The Vikings might also call around to Miami, who are grooming first-round pick Laremy Tunsil at guard while playing Branden Albert at left tackle. He’s another aging player that would represent a likely upgrade and could cost less than Thomas. The Vikings aren’t exactly stocked with running backs, but throwing a late pick and Matt Asiata in might tempt a team like Miami.
A moonshot could be for Andrew Whitworth in Cincinnati, an arguably better pass protector than Joe Thomas in a contract year. He might cost less than Thomas, as he’s older, especially with the talent that the Bengals have behind him in Jake Fisher. They even have a starting-quality backup in Eric Winston whom they might be willing to trade for significantly less. With the receiving help they seem to need with Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, Wright is once again potential trade bait.
If the Vikings are simply done with trading away youth or draft capital, they could experiment with who they have on the roster. Alex Boone played tackle for four years at Ohio State and played it well, earning draft credibility as a tackle instead of guard.
With a 6’8” frame and 35” arms, Boone’s body type is much closer to a tackle’s body type and even worked out at a level above that of the average tackle in the NFL draft combine. He played spot duty at tackle on both sides of the line in San Francisco and did well. I asked Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus how they evaluated his play in those situations, and they appraised Boone well.
In 2010 against Arizona with Darnell Dockett and Joey Porter, he earned a +1.8 grade over 18 snaps. In 2011, he took 186 snaps on both sides of the line and earned a +5.3 grade. Once again, specifically at Arizona, he scored a grade of +3.0 at left tackle. In 2013, during Robert Quinn’s breakout 19.0-sack season, Boone found himself at left tackle lined up against the All-Pro. Quinn didn’t record a sack and Boone had a +1.1 grade as a pass blocker.
For Boone to kick out, they would have to find a solution at left guard, but the options they have with Zac Kerin at guard or with Joe Berger moving out and Nick Easton at center both seem more palatable than Clemmings at left tackle.
In fact, it’s standard practice for many NFL teams to kick out their same-sided guard to tackle instead of necessarily grabbing one from the bench. Former Vikings, Chiefs, Panthers and Giants guard/tackle Geoff Schwartz told Pro Football Focus several years ago that many teams prefer that over grabbing a guy on the bench or switching sides at tackle.
“If you look at most lines,” he told them, “the backup LT is the LG, or he’s on the bench. Both teams I’ve played on, our backup LT was the LG.”
For Clemmings, who played at right tackle throughout his short college career and his one year in the NFL, it might be difficult. Schwartz continued:
“That is why you don’t often see linemen switching sides of the ball for injury or performance. Playing offensive line is a very technical position. Being a great athlete and a physical player can only take you so far if you don’t use proper technique. You must drill over and over again to get the footwork and hand placement down. On top of that, mentally switching things over in your head can be tough at first. You’re used to reacting to movement on one side of the line of scrimmage, now it’s happening on the opposite side”
I asked Manyweather about Boone and the shuffle scenario, and he was warm to the idea. “When I was affiliated with OLine Performance,” he said, “I remember Boone kicking out to LT a few games Staley was unable to finish. The one game that stands out is 2013 vs. the Rams. Boone was steady at LT in a bind, and though he and the Vikings OL have struggled early on, I feel like his game has grown and with prep, he could do just fine at LT. Boone was a very good OT at OSU.”
He also mentioned that Boone’s frame is a better fit for offensive tackle. “Some of the physical traits that Boone possess actually project to OT, great length at 6’8 and I believe 35-inch arms. Explosive pass set and shows that he has the range to expand set points based on the defender he is playing.”
He expanded on the idea of an interior line shuffle, “Zac Kerin and Nick Easton give 2 very good options for an IOL shuffle, neither have a ton of experience, but they both showed they can play. Kerin has had 2 very good preseason back-to-back and also can play center, which he played at Toledo.”
Easton has been somewhat of a PFF darling, earning positive grades in the last two preseasons from them, including the highest center grade in 2015 for the Baltimore Ravens. This performance was likely why he was the rare undrafted free agent who was immediately traded for draft capital (a seventh-round pick) shortly after the preseason… and even more afterwards—with Minnesota trading away starting linebacker Gerald Hodges to receive Easton and a sixth-round pick.
We know that teams often kick guards out to tackle to varying degrees of success. Vikings fans may remember Josh Sitton doing so against them when David Bakhtiari went down with an injury, and though that wasn’t an ideal situation it may have been better than using their backup tackle. I asked Manyweather what drives these kinds of decisions, and he argued that it came down to core team philosophy.
Some teams will have their more experienced tackle switch sides (like the Patriots did with Sebastian Vollmer), while others will stay true to the same side but kick players out. Others, like the Vikings over the past several years, will have a backup tackle who swings between the right and left side in practices in order to be ready.
Notably, the Ravens had fantastic success kicking Kelechi Osemele out to left tackle in injury duty and he continued to play tackle at a high level for them.
No matter what they do, the Vikings will still need to ensure quality play from the rest of their offensive line.
Against Green Bay, they were once again ready to give up significant pressure. Though Bradford succeeded in spite of that, that is hardly a likely outcome going into the future.
Sam Bradford splits:
Under pressure: 127.9 QB Rating
No pressure: 107.6 QB Rating
Full details ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/McP1FcWQEa
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 19, 2016
Pressure on 48.6 percent of snaps is an abysmal rate, and worse than the rate the Vikings allowed over the course of the season last year, a record amount in PFF’s database.
What’s worse is that Minnesota’s scheme was in some ways responsible for the pressure last year, calling a higher rate of seven-step drops than any other team in the league, while playing the fewest snaps with three-step drops.
Not so for this game. Like the prior week, the Vikings were aggressive about finding schematic ways to protect the passer and only called for seven-step drops on 20 percent of their pass attempts. 57 percent of those were on play-action, too.
This time, the Vikings had 42.9 percent of their dropbacks come on three-step drops and another 11.4 percent come on “now” throws—one-step drops. This protected Bradford to some degree and he was only under pressure 40 percent of the time in those situations, as opposed to the 60 percent of throws under pressure in other situations.
Keeping Bradford in shotgun was one of the most obvious and easiest ways to make him more comfortable in the offense. Nevertheless, the Vikings offensive line in several ways underperformed compared to last year and weren’t just responsible for four sacks, but also 13 additional pressures. That doesn’t mean the offensive linemen failed 13 times; I logged 29 failures.
It just so happens that many of their failures coincided with each other, so it counts as one “pressured snap,” while two linemen give up the sack.
Of those linemen, only two performed well—Alex Boone, who functionally gave up two pressures by assignment and one more through a missed blitz pickup—and Joe Berger, who gave up three pressures.
Aside from that, injured Matt Kalil gave up ten pressures, while Andre Smith gave up six. Brandon Fusco gave up seven of his own. This allowed 13 plays where to defenders were able to contact Bradford outside of sacks, and six defenders to take Bradford down with the ball in his hands—with two players sacking Bradford on the same play twice.
That’s a lot of numbers to say, in short, that the offensive line played in pass protection worse somehow than they did last year in a situation that should have been much easier, with only Boone and Berger looking relatively clean.
As run blockers they were marginally better, but certainly not good. Though better than their peers at protecting the passer, both Boone and Berger were suspect run blockers against Green Bay. Fusco was perhaps the worst run blocker of the five of them and the tackles were once again given relatively stress-free assignments.
Against a team with more discipline and power up front in Carolina, the Vikings offensive line will have a tall order in keeping the running game going while also keeping Bradford upright.