It’s hard to know yet whether the Minnesota Vikings will get center Pat Elflein back in time to face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field or whether he will have to wait another week or two (he was limited in practice Wednesday), but one thing was clear after Week 1: The Vikings are not the same without him.
UPDATE: Pat Elflein will not play vs. Packers
While they came away with a victory and had an overall passable performance by the makeshift offensive line, which featured newcomer Brett Jones at starting center and journeyman backup Tom Compton at left guard, it was evident that there are plenty of areas where Elflein will make an immediate difference.
That starts with the Vikings’ rushing attack. Gifted running back Dalvin Cook gained just 2.5 yards per carry as he was routinely slowed at the line of scrimmage.
Following the game, head coach Mike Zimmer commented on the O-line’s inability to block the San Francisco 49ers’ linebackers.
“Sometimes we didn’t get to the second level,” 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.”
Here is one example in which Jones (61) could not reach the linebacker and he was able to shut down Cook.
Getting to the second level and making plays on linebackers quickly is one of Elflein’s top strengths, USA Football offensive line analyst Brandon Thorn explained.
“With Elflein, I think he’s an above average athlete, but he’s also very smart on the field,” Thorn said. “Partly why he can align his targets so well in space isn’t so much his athleticism…it’s his ability to read defenders in space really quickly to take really precise angles, to not over-run or under-shoot guys. How smart he is plays a big role in what he can do in space.”
On the play below, Elflein (65) shows his quickness as he attacks and eliminates Detroit’s linebacker before he has a chance to pursue Cook.
When you look back at Elflein’s rookie season, it’s noticeable how often he executes on plays that require quick “mental processing.”
Here against Washington, the Vikings’ starting center spots the linebacker (53) shooting into the gap to potentially blow up a Jerick McKinnon run. After sticking his man (90) for just long enough, he lets the defensive tackle go in order to get a small piece of the linebacker, pushing him off the spot enough to allow McKinnon a big gain up the middle rather than a loss or no gain.
On this play, it may have been No. 61 Joe Berger’s assignment to work to the second level to hit No. 53, but when the linebacker blitzed, Elflein made a quick adjustment and kept him from making a splash play.
The Vikings’ 2017 third-round pick also has uncanny ability to be a heat-seeking missile when he gets in space in the screen game, tracking down linebackers and defensive backs to create extra yards for Minnesota’s running backs in the short passing game.
It became very clear in Week 1 the Vikings plan on using Cook repeatedly as a quick-pass option for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
“Most often times what I’ve seen on screens, when the running back cuts back upfield, the center is usually the one he’s cutting off of because he’s the furthest inside, he sets the ally for the running back to have a lane upfield on the cutback, I think that’s the main thing,” Thorn said. “His ability to cut off defenders and wall off defenders in space, we saw it plenty of times last year and Dalvin Cook has to be ecstatic about that.”
Below, you can see Elflein fly out into the secondary and force the safety to slow to a stop rather than pursuing running back Latavius Murray.
There are less tangible elements of playing the center position that Thorn says are among the most valuable. One of those being the chemistry between center and quarterback when it comes to setting protections. The better the center is at diagnosing the defense, the less concerned with protection the quarterback has to be.
“Pre-snap communication between the center, the quarterback and then the center and the rest of his linemates, he’s kind of the hub for the rest of the offensive line,” Thorn said. “Everyone else’s responsibility is predicated on what the center and quarterback determine. It will be interesting to see that dynamic because Cousins is the veteran but Elflein is such a heady, smart guy that he can probably handle it to free up Cousins for other responsibilities.”
Another part of Elflein’s game that adds value but is tough to quantify is toughness. He brings an imposing force that wears down opponents over the course of a game. For example, in the play below, Elflein’s man isn’t anywhere close to making a stop on the play, yet the young center drives him back into the ground five yards away from the initial point of contact.
The Vikings could use that type of toughness this week as they match up with Green Bay. The Packers possess one of the most imposing defensive lines in the NFL.
“Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels, they are so strong, they play so low to the ground with such great pad level, they are very good with their hands, they are difficult to get your hands on as an offensive lineman and when you do, you’re not going to move them much,” Thorn said.
If he can’t come back in time for Week 2, the Vikings will absolutely need Elflein in top shape by Week 4 and Week 5 when they face the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles in back-to-back weeks.
And while the offensive line will continue to be a concern, it should look much more sturdy with its centerpiece back in the mix.
Listen to Matthew and Brandon Thorn break down Elflein’s game