The walls of the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line began corroding at the very peak of the 2016 season.
In Week 5, quarterback Sam Bradford had one of the best games of his career and the Vikings romped the Houston Texans 34-13 at US Bank Stadium to advance to a 5-0 record. But while Bradford was dropping dimes left and right, opponents spotted the blueprint to solving the Vikings’ offense.
That week, Bradford had the quickest time of any quarterback from snap to throw. The Texans played single-high safety, allowing the Vikings’ QB to spot 1-on-1 matchups in an eyeblink. With the arm of a No. 1 overall pick, Bradford shredded the Texans, going 22-for-30 passing with 271 yards and two touchdowns. But despite a blazing fast release time, he was sacked twice and hit a number of times by pass rushers Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney.
Left tackle TJ Clemmings, a fourth round pick in 2015 who had been pressed into action by a season-ending injury to Matt Kalil, was dominated by the Texans’ defensive line. At one point, Mercilus slapped his hands out of the way like an NBA-style emphatic rejection and sacked Bradford. On another play, Clowney tossed Clemmings aside and ripped down running back Jerick McKinnon for a loss.
The rest of the line wasn’t much better. Backups Zac Kerin and Jeremiah Sirles were both forced into action due to injuries to Brandon Fusco and Andre Smith and Alex Boone struggled to run block effectively.
Trying to patch things together, the Vikings signed oft-injured Jake Long off his couch and threw him in at one of the most difficult positions in football. One week later, the Philadelphia Eagles used a mix of blitzes and two-deep safety concepts to keep Bradford from making quick reads. The O-line was helpless against Philly’s defense.
Still it was only one game. The Eagles were off to a good start, they were at home and had a talented defense.
It wasn’t until Monday Night Football against the Chicago Bears that the levee broke. The Bears rushed four, sat back with their deep safeties and watched Bradford get sacked five times.
Following that game, it was clear the Vikings’ offense could not succeed with the offensive line that was in place. And there was nothing they could do about it.
One year later, the Vikings head into Chicago for Monday Night Football with one of the league’s best offensive lines – one that has only allowed five sacks and helped the running game become a legitimate weapon.
Now they Vikings’ offensive line will be asked to carry them through rocky times. The difference between 2016 and 2017 is that they will be up to the task.
The most valuable position
The Vikings’ problems up front started well before the 2016 season. Teddy Bridgewater led the NFL in times sacked in 2015, but he was so good at making something out of nothing and coming up with big plays late in games that it went relatively unnoticed on the way to an 11-5 record. Left tackle Matt Kalil was well below average, as he had been every year since making the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
Kalil’s fall from No. 4 overall pick and franchise left tackle to liability was at the center of the disaster in the trenches. Picking up his fifth-year option – which made Kalil the highest paid tackle in the NFL in ‘16 – hamstrung the team from finding a solution at right tackle. They signed Andre Smith, who appeared uninterested in leading an O-line resurgence, then got hurt for the year.
GM Rick Spielman said team believed that Kalil had made progress prior to the 2016 season, but in two games to open the year he was rated as one of the league’s worst tackles by Pro Football Focus. A season-ending hip injury forced Clemmings into action.
On the opening day of free agency, there were rumors that the Vikings were interested in bringing Kalil back.
Teams scrambled to chase the few available tackles. Superstar Andrew Whitworth – who probably belongs in Canton someday – quickly signed with the Los Angeles Rams. Former Seahawk Russell Okung was picked up by the Chargers.
There were only two left tackles remaining on the market (who weren’t on the brink of retirement): Kalil and Riley Reiff.
Reiff, a former Detroit top pick, had been moved from left to right tackle when the Lions picked Taylor Decker in the first round. He might have chosen to stay with the Lions if they hadn’t selected Decker. Instead he signed with the Vikings.
“I think part of the reason why we were attracted to him is his attitude, demeanor, toughness,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said. “He’s a Midwest guy that I think we just thought would fit in well here.”
It’s hard to put an exact number on Reiff’s impact, but the Vikings’ downfield passing game has been night and day from last season, in large part because Reiff has slowed down edge rushers. Heading into Week 5, the Vikings only ranked behind the Patriots, Rams and Cardinals in completions of 20 or more yards.
“I think that’s the thing that I really appreciate about him is that he’s very critical of his play and trying to make sure he does things the right way,” offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. “He’s really, really good at what he does. Because he’s good at what he does, his ability to lead and to help bind that group together is kind of a value added there.”
As the Vikings head into Chicago, Reiff ranks as the NFL’s 20th best tackle out of 68. He’s allowed zero sacks in four games. (Kalil rated 53rd prior to the Panthers’ game against Detroit, if you were wondering).
The three centers
If football years were regular human years, then right guard Joe Berger would have hit his peak at age 97.
Over his first five years in the NFL, Berger started zero games. In years 5-10, a football player’s mid-to-late athletic prime, he started 29 of a possible 80 contests – and did not miss significant time due to injury.
It wasn’t until Zimmer arrived in 2014 that Berger took over as the starting center. Last year he ranked as one of the league’s best at his position by PFF. His quality play during brief stint at guard opened the door for the Vikings to move him over to a full-time starter when they drafted Ohio State’s Pat Elflein.
PFF currently ranks Berger as the 15th best guard in the league out of 73 players.
“One of the questions I was asked when I sat down in a room with Jeff Davidson after being cut in Miami was: ‘Do you still think you can improve?’” Berger said on Friday. “Yes. And that’s what I’ve tried to do every year…I don’t know if there’s any big answer for why it’s worked out this way that I’ve played more at the end of my career than the beginning, but I think getting to Minnesota, playing a style of football that fit my style of play. I don’t know. There could be 1,000 reasons or it could be just the way it worked out.”
During training camp, there were whispers that Berger’s transition to full-time guard wasn’t going as hoped, but the switch has been smooth through four games.
“After playing center for two years, it took a little while to adjust back to right guard, but that’s what training camp is for,” Berger said. “I think the adjustment has gone well…there’s always room to improve and that’s what I look for each week.”
The swingman to building a quality offensive line has been Elflein. Without his emergence as an NFL-ready center despite being selected in the third round, the Vikings would have either been forced to move Berger back to center or start Nick Easton and keep Alex Boone.
Elflein was a top rated center coming out in the draft, but he slipped through the cracks to the third round. The Vikings traded up to select the Remington Award winner for college football’s best center.
“What we’re trying to do is get more physical up front,” Spielman said on draft night. “The one thing that this kid brings is physicality to our offensive line.”
Elflein is coming off his best game. PFF rated him the fourth best center of Week 4 following his performance against the Detroit Lions. Overall, he is rated in the middle of the pack, but his skill set has brought something unique to the Vikings.
It may have been physical play that Spielman admired, but it’s Elflein’s quickness and athleticism that has helped improve the Vikings’ offense, especially in the screen game, which was non-existent in 2016. On several big pass plays, including a 26-yard gain on opening night by Dalvin Cook, he’s been 20-plus yards down the field blocking.
“I think he’s done well,” Berger said. “He came in here with the right attitude. He knew that he had a lot to learn and he was willing to take it on. He’s out there making calls. Nick [Easton] will help him out once in awhile, but for the most part Pat is doing a great job at it.”
When training camp began, we expected to see Elflein and Berger on the line together, but not Elflein, Berger and left guard Nick Easton.
Last year, Easton filled in at center when injuries to Berger and Brandon Fusco opened up opportunities to get in the lineup. He split reps with Elflein at center from the start of camp until the very last day. Then the Vikings announced they cut starter Alex Boone, who they had signed the previous year to a four-year, $27 million contract.
But Boone didn’t fit. The team was shifting to an outside zone run scheme and Easton was more capable of blocking on the move than the 6-foot-8, powerful Boone.
So far there have been some down moments for Easton . He ranks 62nd of 74 guards. But PFF grades are far from everything. Easton might get dinged heavily for losing a 1-on-1 battle to Cameron Heyward, but not get rewarded for a subtle reach block while on the move. He’s also still adapting to the spot and could see his grade improve over a bigger sample. PFF’s Eric Eager told 1500ESPN that left guard is also a positive that fluctuates the most of all the O-line spots in PFF grades.
Easton brings something else to the left guard spot that is sometimes downplayed in analytical circles, but has made a difference in this case: He fits the culture much better than Boone.
From Berger, the line’s leader, on down, the Vikings’ offensive line has its own culture. Easton and Reiff aren’t all that comfortable talking with media. Berger and Remmers are the bearded ambassadors, but they are workmanlike and unwilling to make headlines.
Boone, on the other hand, told Minnesota’s own fans to “shut the f— up” on the opening night of the stadium. He said that the Packers would win the Super Bowl over his “dead f—ing body.”
That doesn’t fit the O-line’s go-about-your-business style.
“That’s exactly what we are, we’re not afraid of hard work or of seeing what we’re doing wrong and trying to do it better, being critical of ourselves, win or loss,” Berger said.
Remmers was a part of forming the culture and identity. He was signed to a five-year, $30 million deal only a few years after being cut in camp by the Vikings.
Like Berger, he grinded away for a job with several teams before landing a full-time spot in Carolina in 2014.
“The offensive line is always a special group, always a tight-knit group and there’s a lot of great guys in our O-line group here and I feel happy and fortunate to be part of it,” Remmers said.
While he took criticism for poor play last season, Remmers’ struggles with the Panthers were largely due to a switch in position to left tackle. Now that he’s back on the right side, Remmers can use his size and viscous playing style to grind away at opponents. He currently ranks as the league’s 17th best tackle by PFF ratings.
Remmers has taken pride in helping the only rookie in the group. He said Elflein’s disposition has been a driving force behind fitting in on a veteran line.
“He’s a professional,” Remmers said. “I think he’s learned a lot from us and we’ve helped him grow into the player he is now and he’s a guy that is going to continue to get better, not just through this season but through his whole career. It’s a tough position and he’s been handling it well.”
“All of these guys take it very seriously,” Zimmer added. “They have a lot of pride in their job. Pat is no different from any of those guys. He’s a guy that really likes to compete and sticks on blocks for the most part. When he makes a mistake, he corrects it.”
Nobody has been a bigger beneficiary of the O-line’s effectiveness than Shurmur. His quarterbacks have had time to work the ball downfield, he isn’t cringing every time he wants to turn toward the run and screen plays can be mixed in. Shurmur, a former lineman himself, has said the early-season success on offense has been in large part due to improved blocking.
“That’s a gritty, hard job but they embrace it because basically you’re coming in here blocking somebody on every play. I like their personality, I like their mindset,” Shurmur said.
Continuity and depth
The Vikings’ five starting lineman have missed a total of four plays this year. Last season, no lineman played over 85% of snaps and 10 players saw more than 100 snaps up front.
“What they do individually blocking their guy is certainly important, but what’s most important is how they play as a unit,” Shurmur said. “So, the longer the unit can play together, the better they have a feel and really, the more efficient they can become. I think there’s some benefit to that. The first quarter of the season we’ve been able to play the same five guys.”
A PFF study found that grades of the player next to each individual lineman affect the others. So a tackle’s struggles would impact a guard and on down the line. But good play brings up the man on the right or left.
“It’s important,” Zimmer said. “You saw from a year ago to now, the difference in what they’re doing. The offensive line is playing good. They have a good group. The communication level has been good. It is important. It really is important.”
If the Vikings do lose a lineman, they are in much better shape to handle it than last season. Tackle Rashod Hill, who was picked up off Jacksonville’s practice squad last year, has emerged as a quality No. 3 behind Reiff and Remmers. He’s a good culture fit as a quiet, hard-working player who’s willing to listen to more experienced players and take note of their strengths. And fifth-round pick Danny Isidora made the team out of camp after outplaying Clemmings for a guard spot.
Versatility plays a role too since Easton or Berger can slide into the center position.
The Vikings have been put in a tough position simply by luck of the draw. For three of the first four games, Minnesota was pushed to play backup quarterback Case Keenum. Now they will go forward without Dalvin Cook. The O-line will not only be asked to do more for Latavius Murray – a power runner – and Jerick McKinnon, they will have to protect an already-injured Sam Bradford or possibly even Teddy Bridgewater, who could return from a terrifying knee injury.
We couldn’t have imagined one year ago that the success of the Vikings’ season would rest on the five up front, but it appears that way. Without continued strong play, explosive runs and deep throws could be taken off the table as they were last year.
But this time around, they are built to handle the pressure.