The 2016 Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams were offensively challenged.
Both were bottom 10 in points scored. Both were bottom 10 in sacks allowed. And they possessed the two worst rushing attacks in football.
The Vikings featured a revolving door at left tackle with Matt Kalil, Jake Long, T.J. Clemmings and Rashod Hill all getting time at the most important offensive line position. The Rams were growing weary of left tackle Greg Robison, their former No. 2 overall pick who has since moved on to Detroit, where he is struggling with the Lions.
The two teams went out and addressed their left tackle void in free agency. Minnesota signed Riley Reiff to a five year, $58.75 million deal. Los Angeles signed Andrew Whitworth to a three-year, $33.75 million deal.
Both clubs have reaped the benefits.
“It gives you a tremendous amount of comfort at quarterback knowing you’ve got a guy backside like Riley,” said Sunday’s starting quarterback Case Keenum.
Keenum suffered behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines last season. The Rams finished second-worst in the NFL with 49 sacks allowed. Twenty-three of those were at Keenum’s expense before he was benched in Week 11 for Jared Goff, who did not win a game in final seven weeks.
Robinson, Los Angeles’s left tackle, allowed eight sacks last year, one off the league high. Keenum had the sixth-highest sack percentage (19.8) of passers with over 100 dropbacks under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Goff had the highest (25.2).
Behind the Vikings’ offensive line, however, Keenum has been the league’s toughest quarterback to sack, showing above-average mobility and pocket awareness. His sack percentage is a minuscule 4.8 percent — five sacks out of 103 pressures. Keenum certainly deserves credit for his ability to escape the pocket, but there have been very few wholesale breakdowns against the Vikings blocking unit, which includes running backs doing a better job at picking up protections.
Reiff has arguably been the sturdiest of the group, allowing zero sacks on 315 passing plays. He is one of five tackles — along with teammate Mike Remmers — to not allow a sack this season. In five of the eight games Keenum has played, he has not taken a sack.
“We’re just doing the best we possibly can and blocking as long as we possibly can,” said Remmers. Asked who the leader of the line was, Remmers didn’t hesitate. “Our captain, Riley. He’s the best.”
Both teams’ revitalization comes in large part because of their retooled offensive lines.
While the Vikings’ offensive strides have been noticeable, the Rams’ worst-to-first transformation has been unprecedented — well, maybe not completely.
The 1998 Rams, just like the 2016 Rams, went 4-12. The following year, they won the Super Bowl with a high-powered offense that scored 32.9 points per game. These Rams? Scoring 32.9 points per game.
Whitworth hit free agency at age 35 after 11 years in Cincinnati. While his age may have been a detractor for some, myriad teams pursued the well-respected tackle. He turned down an offer from the Bengals and landed with the Rams as a stabilizer on their offensive line. He’s lived up to his $15 million guaranteed salary, posting the sixth-highest pass-blocking efficiency and fifth-highest run-blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus.
“He’s huge, number one,” said Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer, who knows Whitworth from spending six years on the Bengals coaching staff. “He’s smart. He’s got good feet. Typically, he likes to set with his hands out; he doesn’t give you his hands a lot. He’s a tough guy.”
The Rams have only allowed 13 sacks this season, good for fifth in the league. The Vikings are one of the four teams ahead of them, having surrendered just 10 sacks, and four of those came in one half against hobbled quarterback Sam Bradford in Week 5 at Chicago.
Both teams’ revitalization comes in large part because of their retooled offensive lines. While stalwart left tackles have been the anchor, both teams added a new center with Minnesota inserting rookie Pat Elflein and Los Angeles acquiring former Vikings mainstay John Sullivan. Minnesota also brought in Remmers and released veteran Alex Boone to make way for left guard Nick Easton.
With NFC playoff seeding potentially at stake on Sunday, the battles in the trenches will be worth the price of admission.
“I think those guys are playing their tails off,” said Keenum of his offensive line, “all the way across the board.”