The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has taken quite a few hits between its refurbishment to start 2017 and the present. This offseason saw solid veteran Joe Berger retire, Nick Easton suffer a season-ending injury and Pat Elflein sit out all of training camp recovering from shoulder and ankle surgery.
In the Vikings’ Week 1 win over the San Francisco 49ers, they were forced to start a journeyman backup at left guard and a center who was acquired less than two weeks before the start of the season. To make matters even more challenging, starting left tackle Riley Reiff was limited in two of the week’s three practice days.
But the Vikings got exactly the performance they needed out of their anchor. Reiff gave up just one hurry, zero QB hits and zero sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. In fact, PFF gave his contest against the 49ers the third highest grade since Reiff joined the Vikings.
His strong opener was a welcome sign for quarterback Kirk Cousins, who was sacked three times by interior defensive lineman DeForest Buckner but in total only faced pressure on nine of 43 passing plays. It was made even more promising for the Vikings’ offensive line because injuries hindered Reiff toward the end of last season when he gave up all three sacks in 2017 in the final four weeks of the season and then allowed a QB hit and five hurries in the NFC Championship game.
Throughout his career, the former first-round pick of the Detroit Lions has shown he can play above average at the left tackle position (he played right tackle in 2016). In 2014, he gave up just three sacks and 39 total pressures in 647 pass plays, which ranked well above average at his position.
PFF’s Pass Blocking Efficiency is determined by the number of sacks, QB hits and QB pressures allowed per passing snap. Here is Riley Reiff’s career rates:
In order for Cousins and the Vikings’ offense to continue to operate, it will require Reiff to carry over his quality play week to week. Over the last three seasons, Cousins has lost the fifth most yards to sacks and tied with Blake Bortles and Jameis Winston for most fumbles. He flashed mobility against the 49ers, but also can be affected significantly by pressure. According to PFF, Cousins’ quarterback rating dropped from 106.5 when clean to 66.3 when hurried.
The Vikings’ O-line will get a boost when Elflein returns, which could be as soon as this week against the Green Bay Packers. That will allow Brett Jones to move over from center to left guard, strengthening the pass protection for Cousins’ blind side. Jones did not allow a pressure on Sunday and was in the top five among centers last season in Pass Blocking Efficiency.
Elflein’s return will especially help in the run game, where the Vikings gained just 84 yards on 23 carries between Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray.
“Sometimes we didn’t get to the second level,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They were lined up a little bit different, the linebacker was shaded a little further away. All those things determine your calls, so when these two guys are trying to get those two guys, if he’s way over here and then he moves on the snap we have to be able to see it a little bit quicker. I thought we had some good runs, but I thought we didn’t get to the linebacker enough.”
While the interior will be in for a challenge against the Packers, the Vikings may catch a break against the edge rushers as Green Bay struggled to create pressure from outside against the Bears in Week 1.