What a difference a year makes.
The Minnesota Vikings opened the 2017 season with different starters at every position from one year ago. And in their debut, they played a major role in an opening night win over the New Orleans Saints.
With new faces across the line, it was fair to wonder whether the group up front would be on the same page right away. After all, the Vikings’ offensive line did not play together at all during the preseason. Left tackle Riley Reiff missed time during training camp and preseason with a back injury and veteran guard Alex Boone was released on cut-down day.
But the revamped O-line answered that question quickly. Reiff and fellow offseason signee Mike Remmers were solid in pass protection, which gave quarterback Sam Bradford more time in the pocket than he had all of last year.
Remmers mostly slowed down pass rusher Cameron Jordan, who has 17.5 sacks over the last two seasons, giving him few chances to hit Bradford.
“I’m real proud of our group,” Remmers said. “We studied extremely hard all week and worked really hard. They have a great defense, a lot of good pass rushers. It was a a tough matchup. I’m just proud of everyone.”
As a result, Bradford was able to create big plays downfield, especially in the second quarter. The Vikings’ quarterback led a three-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by an 18-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs on a play-action throw. Bradford had time to flip the ball up in the air to his wide open receiver in the end zone.
It was hardly the only drive in which Bradford had time to throw. He fired a 44-yard pass to Adam Thielen on the final drive of the first half, ultimately leading to a touchdown, then opened the second half with a 30-yard toss to Diggs down the sideline.
Rookie starting center Pat Elflein had no trouble adapting to NFL speed in his debut. On Monday night, he put on a strong performance, showing his athleticism and ability to pull on screen plays.
“Growing up watching Monday Night Football and finally getting to do that, it was pretty surreal,” Elflein said. “It was awesome. Soak all that in. To to out and do that with the five guys we have up front, couldn’t ask for better teammates.”
The Vikings’ run blocking was better on Monday than at any point last season, when the Vikings ranked dead last in the NFL in yards and yards per carry. Dalvin Cook ran 22 times for 127 yards.
“All the credit to those guys up front,” Cook said. “They did a great job tonight. “Opening up holes, pass blocking for Sam [Bradford] and making sure the playmakers made plays.”
When the Vikings needed a first down to close out the game, they busted Cook open for a 33-yard run.
“We knew we had to go out there and get a first down, we [also] wanted to get 100 yards rushing [for Cook] and kind of close the game out, so we went out there and did that,” Elflein said. “It was a sense-of-pride thing.”
The Vikings’ O-line will face a tougher test next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. But at least for Week 1, they answered a lot of questions.