As Pads Come On, Emphasis is On Fixing Pass Protection

With the first padded practices in the offing, head coach Mike Zimmer today after walkthroughs emphasized some of the changes he mentioned earlier in training camp about Matt Kalil and the offensive line as a whole.

The offensive line has been a key focus for the Vikings this past offseason, who not only signed two free agents in Alex Boone and Andre Smith, but also added Willie Beavers in the draft. Beyond that, adding experienced offensive line coach Tony Sparano to implement changes in technique and scheme can only help.

I was able to talk to center John Sullivan today about Sparano and how things change with a new offensive line coach. “I mean, football is football,” he told me, “But it’s just about coaching styles and personalities. He’s very demanding, we’re working throughout the entire practice, we don’t get the break periods that we used to get during special teams or stuff like that – he’s just a very demanding coach and that’s good, that’s what you need.”

Though the fundamentals never change, Sullivan was comfortable saying that different things are being demanded of them from a technical standpoint. “A lot of these plays are variations of the same thing, but there are little nuances and technical differences that make a big difference,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of football at this point, so it’s not particularly difficult to adjust but there are certainly differences between coaches coaching styles and schemes.”

Some of those technical changes may lead to an improvement in the play of the Vikings’ 2012 fourth overall pick Matt Kalil.

“We’ve changed his technique some,” Zimmer said of Kalil in a presser today. “I don’t want to get too complicated, but he was turning too soon a lot. Mainly about staying square is the easiest way to say it.”

Those changes are difficult to integrate into enduring technique, and Zimmer recognized that, too. “[It] doesn’t come overnight. He had some slip-ups yesterday that he reverted back, so we’ve just got to get going back and going.”

As for why that specific technical change was necessary, Zimmer was surprisingly forthcoming. “The problem is that when you turn,” he elaborated, “That’s one of the things we try to get offensive linemen to do is turn their shoulders, then you can either power them or get them underneath or if they’re slow out then you beat them around the corner. It’s a lot about timing and when they punch and which hand they punch with first and a lot of those things.”

Pass protection isn’t a one-man job, though—and it also isn’t contingent only on the offensive line, either. With a young running back corps and Adrian Peterson responsible for blitzers in pass protection, there’s concern about what they can provide.

“For young running backs, blitz pick-up is always the number one thing so they can protect the quarterback,” Zimmer said. “It’s at least as important as running with the football.”

There aren’t many running backs on the roster that have impressive pass protection chops. Undrafted free agents Jhurell Pressley and C.J. Ham weren’t asked to protect too much in college and Jerick McKinnon was a quarterback. Adrian Peterson is notably poor at it.

When asked if there were any backs on the roster that had satisfactory protection ability, Zimmer was clear about who was doing well and who needed more work. “Well, Matt [Asiata] does a good job in protection,” he said. “And Jerick is getting better. Adrian keeps working at.”

He was willing to go into a little bit of detail here, too. “Part of it is knowing who to block because defenses are always trying to fool you. Sometimes they might have a fake on a run and they have to abort the fake and go to the backside and pick somebody up. Sometimes they may have two guys in protection, so I’ve got this guy, and if he doesn’t come he’s gotta go to the other guy. Sometimes they’re up against bigger guys. There’s a lot of things about who to block and also the technique of blocking.”

This is an expansion on a common running back protection concept that Chris Brown at Smart Football describes as the “dual-read”:

The dual-read is simply where a single blocker is responsible for two-men: if one rushes, he gets blocked; if one doesn’t rush and two rushes, the blocker must wheel out and block them; but if they both rush, the blocker takes the most urgent threat (the inside blitzer) but the quarterback must know he has to throw hot or throw it away (or run like hell). For a runningback, this is actually not too difficult to read because, being in the backfield, he can see all of it happen. In the 1980s and for much of the 1990s, however, it was common to also have linemen — typically the guard — also dual read, but the practice has significantly died out due to the difficulties presented as a result of the zone blitz and increased athleticism of defenders.

It’s a collective effort—one that Teddy acknowledged he played a role in too—but one that will be important to track as training camp progresses, and definitely as the pads come on.

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