Vikings

Ben Bartch Could Have Solved the Vikings Guard Issues

Photo Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn (USA TODAY Sports)

The potential solution to Minnesota Vikings’ long-time guard issues was on the field Sunday. Unfortunately, he was wearing a Jacksonville Jaguars uniform.

Not that Dakota Dozier was awful — despite what his Pro Football Focus grades of 21.1 in pass protection and 43.0 in the run game might say. That surprised me too; while watching the game live I was mentally crafting a scathing review of his performance. But on the rewatch he was… well, he wasn’t great, but he was about what we’ve come to expect without any major gaffes save his false start at the 1-yard line in overtime.

And maybe that’s the bigger issue, that the bar has been set low and when Dozier skates over it we’re inclined to shrug and give him a pass. But this particular Sunday presented a compare-and-contrast opportunity for 29 snaps of what might have been if Rick Spielman hadn’t traded the 105th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the New Orleans Saints for four Day 3 selections.

Why that particular selection? Because with the 116th pick overall, the 10th selection in the fourth round, one pick before the Vikings nabbed D.J. Wonnum, the Jaguars drafted Ben Bartch out of Division-III St. John’s.

The last pick the Vikings actually made prior to Bartch going off the board was at No. 89 in the third round, where they took Cameron Dantzler. And even with my allegiance to Collegeville, even I recognize that this would be an inopportune moment to lobby for swapping out of the Dantzler pick for anything else.

That leaves No. 105, which Trader Rick turned into one pick in each of the final four rounds, overall selections 130, 169, 203 and 244. With those picks the Vikings added DL James Lynch, DB Harrison Hand, OL Blake Brandel and QB Nate Stanley. Nice depth, definitely some promise, but…

…what if that pick could have given the Vikings an interior line answer for both the short and long terms?

LET’S START WITH DOZIER

A seven-year veteran in his second year with the Vikings, Dozier’s inclusion was somewhat of a surprise when Minnesota finally unveiled their starting offensive line prior to the season. His PFF grades of 42.2 pass blocking and 56.5 run blocking are meh at best, but they’re also better than what Pat Elflein and Dru Samia were producing on the other side, so he’s flown somewhat under the radar. With Ezra Cleveland settling in at right guard, the interior line heat is transferring to Dozier.

Sunday’s performance against Jacksonville saw Dozier post his lowest PFF grades of the season in both the run and passing games. As noted earlier, I was inclined to agree with those immediately after the game but upon further review find a bit on the harsh side.

Dozier’s biggest issues are hardly new ones. For a 312-pounder, he anchors inconsistently in pass protection and was pushed back into the pocket on roughly 15% of his pass-blocking snaps. For a man his size, he moves well and gets to the second level, a must in the Vikings’ zone blocking scheme, but he doesn’t do much to help once he gets there. Dozier’s second-level struggles were on display in back-to-back plays just before halftime.

Dozier initially does everything well on the first play, pulling right on a trap and hitting the linebacker, No. 47. But instead of sustaining his block — another frustrating tendency — Dozier employs a one-and-done hitting approach. The linebacker, Joe Schobert, bounces off Dozier and makes the tackle for minimal gain.

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Dozier again reaches the second level on the next play, but by the time he gets there he’s unable to reach either linebacker. To his credit, Dozier starts looking for work, but the first person he actually makes contact with is his own running back—effectively stuffing the play.

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Dozier also still struggles with adjusting to defensive stunts and games at times. On two different occasions, he failed to pick up a looping linebacker; the first resulted in a half-sack for Schobert, and the second a jarring hit on his quarterback just after releasing the ball.

Not surprisingly, the Vikings offense appeared structured to help its struggling interior line. Dozier was solid at moving a defender down the line on the Vikings’ popular “play-action one direction, roll back the other way” passing play, and he formed a solid double-team with Garrett Bradbury on numerous occasions.

But at this point in his career, Dozier is what he is, and ultimately the Vikings will want an upgrade at guard. And if we could get Cher or Marty McFly to turn back time, I know a guy who would fit right in.

THE BARTCH THAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN

When Jaguars center Brandon Linder went down with an injury early in the fourth quarter, Tyler Shatley slid inside to center and Bartch took over at left guard. It wasn’t Bartch’s first rodeo; he’s seen 30 or more snaps in three previous games, notably last week against the Cleveland Browns when he earned some quality camera time for driving the pile into the end zone and celebrating with serious enthusiasm.

Bartch’s run-blocking grades in previous outings have all been solid — 58.7 or better — but his pass-blocking ranged from bad (43.3 against Cleveland) to worse (25.3 against the Los Angeles Chargers). In Minnesota, however, Bartch showed extremely well in pass protection and graded out at a season-high 78.3 in the passing game.

Tangling primarily with Shamar Stephen and Jaleel Johnson, Bartch anchored better than we’ve seen from Minnesota guard play this season. On most of his pass pro snaps Bartch kept his defender at or near the line of scrimmage, and when he did give ground, he pushed the pass-rusher past the pocket or otherwise out of harm’s way.

In an admittedly limited sample size, Bartch also proved more than adept at handling a stunt. With the Jaguars driving for the potential tying score, Minnesota overloaded the left side of the Jacksonville line in an attempt to pressure Mike Glennon into a mistake. Ifeadi Odenigbo loops from the right edge and nearly knifes between the Jaguars’ center and left guard, but Bartch (78) comes off his block to nudge Odenigbo past the pocket, and Glennon ultimately escapes to his left and scrambles for a first down.

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Go figure, a Johnnie demonstrating a high football IQ.

Bartch also showed he was capable of reaching the second level when asked, though again it was only a couple of plays of the 29 snaps he saw.

As for the D3 kid holding up in the NFL? He didn’t look one bit overmatched on the Jaguars’ push for the game-tying touchdown, moving Jalyn Holmes — who played D1 ball at THE Ohio State University — five yards back and ultimately planting him on his backside in the end zone.

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Not like Bartch hasn’t pancaked many a purple-clad defender in his time, amirite?

Sure, my bias is showing. And it’s unlikely the Jags will be parting with a fourth-round investment who clearly can play at this level — especially one as personable and marketable as “The Smoothie King.” Then again, it’s not as if the franchise riding an 11-game losing streak hasn’t had its management issues.

Nonetheless, seeing Bartch ply his trade while Dozier’s struggles continued not only brought back a wave of what might have been, it also demonstrates that the Vikings shouldn’t keep settling for placeholders at guard. So maybe next time there’s an athletic fourth-round lineman sitting on the draft board, Spielman won’t be so quick to pull the trigger on a trade for more Day 3 roster filler.

A guy can dream, at least.

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