You can’t overstate how big the difference has been between the 2016 Minnesota Vikings offensive line and the 2017 version. At the center of the turnaround – literally – has been rookie Pat Elflein, a third-round pick out of Ohio State whose mobility, run blocking skill and toughness have transformed the Vikings’ offense.
Take for example the Vikings’ short passing game. Last season, running back Jerick McKinnon averaged just 4.3 yards per catch on throws behind the line of scrimmage. This year, he’s up to 6.4 per catch, grabbing 25 passes behind the line and gaining 161 yards. Case Keenum has thrown 64.4 percent of his total attempts either behind the line or under 10 yards. Many of those throws have required Elflein to use his mobility to block in space.
On the second play from scrimmage against the Cincinnati Bengals, Elflein made his presence felt after missing last week’s game against the Carolina Panthers. On a screen pass to Latavius Murray, guard Nick Easton lets the defensive tackle go and hits the linebacker No. 50. Elflein turns up field and looks for somebody to hit. If No. 36 gets away from Elflein, it might be a 10-yard gain at best. Instead, Keenum picks up a 28-yard completion because Elflein eliminates the safety (and Laquon Treadwell does a nice job blocking the corner).
Against the Panthers, the Vikings struggled to run the ball up the middle. They did not have that problem with Elflein back in the lineup.
Some of the best things Elflein does are subtle. We’ve slowed down the play below to show one of the smaller, but important, points. It’s clear that Elflein’s job is to get out to block the linebacker No. 57 – which he does nicely, knocking him back several yards. But before the Vikings’ rookie takes on his man, he first uses his left arm to help guard Nick Easton with the defensive tackle. That little bit of help gives Easton and opportunity to slide underneath the DT and turn his feet.
Murray sees the bigger hole on his left, so he cuts back and picks up six yards. Notice at the end of the play you see Elflein finish his block. He doesn’t just knock the LB backward, he follows him all the way to the ground.
There is no chance in the world that Elflein would win NFC Rookie of the Year because of his position, but he’s been as valuable to the Vikings as any other skill rookie in the league.
Another play that stood out on the game film was Stefon Diggs’ 20-yard touchdown. It encapsulates a lot of the Vikings’ success in Pat Shurmur’s passing game and his usage of Adam Thielen and Diggs.
Diggs and Thielen line up next to each other on the right side of the formation with Laquon Treadwell outside. Diggs runs a skinny post, while Treadwell runs a hitch and Thielen goes short over the middle.
Diggs runs at the outside shoulder of the corner back, forcing him to respect a potential fade route. Then the Vikings’ receiver sticks his foot in the ground and breaks toward the middle. Diggs’ usage of the corner’s leverage gave him a free path to break up field.
Meanwhile, Case Keenum keeps his eyes in the middle of the field, holding the safety in place. Diggs is already into his break by the time the safety realizes what’s happening.
Here the full play:
The bottom line: It’s certainly fair to avoid overhyping a win over a downtrodden Cincinnati team, but Elflein’s presence in the middle has been huge for the Vikings’ offense all season. The juxtaposition of the Carolina loss and Cincinnati win made that even more clear. Also, the Vikings will head into the playoffs knowing they have an effective offensive scheme with a great play caller. They also go with two of the best receivers in the NFL. Diggs’ footwork and use of leverage on this play showed why he’s so difficult to stop.