More than one unit authored the Minnesota Vikings’ beatdown of the New Orleans Saints, but none was more surprising than the offensive line and its ability to keep the pocket clean and generate enough space for rookie running back Dalvin Cook to break a rookie debut record for Vikings running backs.
According to Pro Football Focus, Sam Bradford was under pressure for a mere six snaps, with only three of those pressures coming from the offensive line — one apiece from Pat Elflein, Joe Berger and Mike Remmers. That’s the third-best pressure rate allowed in Week 1.
At the same time, Cook placed second only to Kareem Hunt in yards before contact per attempt.
All of this points to an offensive line that not only did its job, but excelled.
But, for some reason, that same grading organization was stingy in handing out player grades to that unit after the game. Riley Reiff graded well and is currently their sixth-best tackle, but Remmers ranks 31st of 63 eligible players. Nick Easton ranks 60th of 64, while Elflein graded out as the second-worst center in the NFL in Week 1.
The data looks good, but the performances very often don’t. And though they didn’t give much up, the seeds of a long-running problem for many of those players are still there.
Whenever an offensive lineman misses on a block but benefits from other circumstance, that’s usually a good result with a worrisome process, and we saw that a few times for Easton and Elflein in pass protection. Other times, the mistakes they made directly contributed to a muddier pocket or problems in the running game.
All told, I counted 10 errors in blocking from Easton and nine from Elflein. The other three linemen accounted for fifteen combined, as far as I could count. A good number of the errors from Easton, Elflein and the rest of the line came from communication errors that will likely plague this new group for a few weeks before things get resolved and are not likely long-term concerns.
Below, the center, right guard and right tackle struggle with a twist and Elflein’s player ends up making contact with the quarterback. On the other side of the line, Easton has trouble picking up the defensive tackle and is lucky that Reiff accidentally trips the defender — in part because Cook thoroughly destroys the edge rusher on the outside.
These kinds of miscommunication errors are understandable and should be resolved soon as the line plays together more often. Easton’s play demonstrates a bigger problem that would look a lot worse had Bradford not drifted in the pocket.
Below is the lone sack on Bradford, another twist. Pro Football Focus correctly attributes this to Berger, but you can see why it occurred — Berger didn’t pick up the twist and is dealing well with the player he blocked. The problem is that Berger should have passed that player off to Remmers and dealt with the twist from Cameron Jordan.
On the play below, New Orleans is twisting both sets of ends and tackles. This time, the right side of the line handles their job reasonably well with some hairy play from Berger but the left side of the line does a very poor job even though the Saints defenders run into each other. Again, Easton’s man is the one that gets through because Easton focuses too much on the defensive tackle that is not his assignment.
Those assignment concerns fall behind concerns about poor performance on more unambiguous plays. In one of the bigger cascade failures in blocking on Monday, Cook runs headlong into a Saints defender that should have been blocked by Elflein, seen rolling after being thrown. From behind, Cook is also tackled by players meant to be blocked by Easton and Remmers.
The next play is not that egregious given that Easton’s job is largely working on the backside of a run, and sometimes forcing a long path is as good as blocking a player entirely. It’s still a blocking failure, however, and Easton ends up chasing the guy who ends up tackling Cook.
Below is an example of a near-miss. It may not be logged as a pressure or had a material impact on the outcome of the play, but it’s a sign of poor play nonetheless. Easton allows Sheldon Rankins to slip right past him and escorts him to the quarterback.
Sam ends up being forced to step up into the pocket and to the right to escape some pressure, but the problem is that a blitzing linebacker — Cook’s responsibility — ends up entering the space. A quarterback with a slightly longer release time would have been nailed. The reason that Cook doesn’t take on that blitzing linebacker is because he’s helping Easton once again deal with a player who beats him at the snap.
And below, he causes a tackle-for-loss.
Easton had a number of issues throughout the game and it’s fair to express concern. The yards-before-contact statistic for Cook is more a statistical quirk of his two long runs as well as some shifty work in the backfield more than it is a solid interior keeping the running back clean.
He also wasn’t the only one. While Berger had some poor moments, they were mostly problems either related directly to miscommunication or working up to the second level, not issues with blocking the person immediately in front of him. Unfortunately, Elflein was somewhat the opposite, having issues with players ahead of him but making some interesting plays downfield, especially on screens.
Below, Elflein helps cause a tackle-for-loss because he hits the ground before taking care of Saints defender Tyeler Davison. Davison turns that into a tackle for loss.
And there’s an issue below where either Elflein or Cook misread their A-gap assignment. I’m tempted to believe that it’s Elflein because he switches who he intends to block, first taking on the linebacker, then the defensive tackle. That kind of indecisiveness causes problems and forces Cook, who initially sets up to take on the linebacker, to change assignments. Unfortunately, this ends up with both defenders running free as both Cook and Elflein are out of position to block the defensive tackle while the linebacker goes untouched.
The problems that Elflein and Easton had throughout the game didn’t have an enormous impact on the outcome, but don’t expect any quarterback or running back to be able to consistently produce with players in the backfield, even if they can do it in particular games.
Some of these problems will be resolved shortly through better chemistry and communication across the line, but a good chunk of these problems could continue to present issues for the Vikings down the line, especially as they compete against the more talented defensive lines on their schedule, starting with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In better news, Reiff played very well and had some exciting finishes. Berger made the fewest mistakes and played a largely clean game, while Remmers played above the expectations many had for him, including me. Reiff’s worst rep was playing as a right tackle in an unbalanced formation, which doesn’t strike me as a problem that will sustain.
As a sidenote, Kyle Rudolph as a blocker was worse than any of the individual offensive linemen. He was in on six pass blocking snaps and failed his assignment on two of them. He had five more failures as a run blocker that I noted, and watching him wasn’t a big priority of mine, so I may have missed more. His play as a blocker was abysmal.
All told, that doesn’t mean the offensive line is anything like it was last year. There’s no question that it’s improved substantially. The miss Easton has above against Rankins isn’t a blowout — and after getting used to seeing defensive tackles run by Brandon Fusco untouched into the backfield, it’s an improvement to see misses turned into near-misses.
The overall impact of the offensive line made it seem like a top-10 line, and on film, they seemed to perform more like a below-average line. That’s still a far cry from the state of the line last year.
With a young group, there’s a lot of room for improvement, too.
It’s not all downhill, but there are certainly issues for the team and fans to be concerned about.