All things considered, the Minnesota Vikings’ loss on Sunday to the Carolina Panthers shouldn’t be taken too hard.
It was a photo finish against an NFC contender on the road, and it followed a pair of impressive road victories that gave the Vikings enough cushion to absorb a loss and remain in prime position for a postseason bye.
But when the dust cleared on the disappointing defeat, the Vikings were down to two-fifths of their offensive line and one-third of their tight end group.
Mike Remmers missed his fifth consecutive start at right tackle between a concussion and lower back injury. He was joined on the sidelines Sunday by Pat Elflein, whose shoulder injury kept him out for the first time — heck, for the first snap — all season. Nick Easton was forced to move from left guard to center with Jeremiah Sirles starting at left guard.
To compound matters, left tackle Riley Reiff suffered an ankle injury late in the third quarter when he backpedaled into Julius Peppers during a sack of Case Keenum. Rashod Hill was forced to move from right tackle to left tackle, Sirles moved from left guard to right tackle, and Danny Isidora entered at left guard.
On top of all that, tight end Kyle Rudolph missed the majority of the fourth quarter with a foot injury, and his backup, David Morgan, was already out with a concussion, leaving Blake Bell — a waiver-wire pickup in September — as the team’s lone tight end.
Got all that?
“We thought we played poorly watching the film,” said Sirles. “We still had a chance to win it there at the end, which just goes to show that if we can be on our game up front, doesn’t really matter who’s in there, we can do well.”
Some might say the Vikings had an opportunity to win in spite of the line. For the first time in 2017, Minnesota’s blockers resembled the patchwork, injury-ravaged group that struggled throughout 2016 and slowed the Vikings’ offense.
The running game suffered as the Vikings generated just nine rushing yards in the second half, excluding scrambles by Keenum. Latavius Murray finished with nine carries for just 14 yards.
Keenum was sacked six times in the game after getting sacked nine times combined in his previous 11 appearances. Hill had arguably his worst game in relief of Remmers, allowing two sacks, one of which indirectly led to Reiff’s injury and simultaneously knocked the Vikings out of field goal range.
Before exiting, Reiff allowed a strip sack that was recovered by Carolina, which cashed it in for three points.
Then on the first play of Minnesota’s final drive, trailing 31-24, the rookie Isidora was beaten by Kawann Short for a sack to push the Vikings back to second-and-16. The Vikings went on to throw three straight incompletions to effectively end the game.
“Some guys got beat that don’t normally get beat,” said head coach Mike Zimmer. “We had some mental errors, we might have been late pushing out to a guy or something like that.”
For the first time in 2017, Minnesota’s blockers resembled the patchwork, injury-ravaged group that struggled throughout 2016 and slowed the Vikings’ offense.
There were several position groups willing to fall on the sword for Sunday’s loss. The pass catchers wished they could have hung on to more balls. Keenum thought his passes could have been crisper. The defense believed it allowed too many explosive plays.
Sirles claimed it should fall on the offensive line.
“We missed some things with our eyes that we’ve been picking up in the past,” he said. “We didn’t turn things over combination-wise, just little things. And protection wise we’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping the pocket clean for Case, and to give up six sacks yesterday really hurts in the room, and we know that there’s nowhere to point the blame but ourselves.”
The loss of Morgan, Minnesota’s top blocking tight end, didn’t help. His status is up in the air as he had yet to clear concussion protocol as of Friday. Rudolph, his counterpart, was seen in a walking boot in the locker room after the game.
Likewise, the offensive line is unlikely to be at full strength Sunday against Cincinnati. While Elflein may be a candidate to return from his shoulder injury, Remmers hasn’t had a full practice in six weeks, and Reiff has yet to test his ankle in practice, though Zimmer offered a vague, positive report about the vital left tackle. “It’s a lot better than what he thought it was going to be,” he said.
The Vikings’ depth was tested on Sunday and didn’t hold up well. Not even the elusive Keenum could slither away from Carolina’s powerful pass rushers, who reminded the Vikings how devastating sacks can be to an offense’s momentum.
Keenum needs to stay upright, and the Vikings need to run the ball. That’s a lot harder to do with three linemen and two tight ends watching from the bench.
“When you have injuries, you’re going to have backup players play in there,” said Zimmer. “We’re not going to make an excuse for this game or for players that come in or anything else. We’ll take ownership of what we did Sunday and we’ll move forward.”