If you limited yourself to selected areas of the box score without knowing the final score of Minnesota’s 43-34 loss to the Packers, you might think the offensive line acquitted itself well in the season opener.
After all, the Vikings averaged 6.1 yards per carry on the ground and had a 22:25 run-pass ratio for the game. In the air, Kirk Cousins was 19-for-25 with a 118.6 passer rating and was only sacked twice after spending most of the last two meetings with Green Bay prone on the field while one Smith or another performed their sack dance.
And the PFF grades are mostly positive. Four of the five Vikings linemen received pass-blocking grades of 66.3 or better and three recorded run-blocking marks of 65.2 or better.
But if you’re a big enough Vikings fan to be reading this you no doubt saw the game, and the score, and you know the early returns on Minnesota standing pat along the offensive line aren’t exactly what we were hoping for.
In fact, in a game where crowd noise wasn’t a factor, disruptive Packers DT Kenny Clark played only 15 snaps, and the Vikings leaned on continuity and experience to carry the day, Minnesota’s Week 1 performance fell solidly on the side of ‘disappointment.’
The Vikings’ only new starter, left guard Dakota Dozier, only jumped out at me on film a couple times — neither in a positive light.
On the second play of the game Dozier was bull-rushed by Dean Lowry (shades of Elflein past), forcing Cousins to flee the pocket. In the second half, with the Vikings fighting to get back in the game, Dozier failed to clear the pile on a pull to the right and Dalvin Cook was brought down for minimal gain.
The same can largely be said of the rest of the Vikings’ line: they were… okay. Adequate, even. In past years, with a dominant defense, adequate offensive line play was enough to get the job done. If what Aaron Rodgers did to Mike Zimmer’s defense Sunday is any indication of how the season will go, “adequate” no longer cuts it.
One positive takeaway was success in the smash mouth game, as the Vikings ran the ball well inside — and inside the red zone. The zone game will still be there, but an ability to convert in short-yardage situations as well is a plus this offense will need.
Which brings me to my biggest questions/concerns about the line’s Week 1 performance:
A good chunk of the Vikings’ o-line success hinges on good coaching and proper schemes; it sure didn’t feel like Minnesota won in those areas against Green Bay. Completely absent were the “play-action one direction; bootleg back the opposite way” passes Cousins and the Vikings had great success with last year. Game flow may have impacted this as well, but I only counted two screens among the Vikings’ passing plays.
With the way the Packers were coming off the edge, particularly with stunts, both the bootleg and the screen could have helped negate Green Bay’s pressure. Of course, the fact that neither offensive lineman got out in front of the screen in time to prevent the Green Bay cornerback from blowing the play up may have also convinced the coaches to remove that call from the sheet.
In last week’s OL preview I labeled this game a chess match between Gary Kubiak and Mike Pettine. On the game-changing safety in particular, Pettine looked like Bobby Fisher and Kubiak more like Bobby Brady. Given Minnesota’s OL issues and Green Bay’s pass rushing acumen, calling a deep drop in the shadow of your own goal post is questionable to start; add to that a perfectly designed blitz where the running back was too far inside carrying out the play fake (and being tackled as well) to pick up any additional edge rushers — and both the guard and tackle were already occupied — and it was an immediate checkmate for Cousins. Maybe Adam Thielen, coming in motion from the left and crossing in front of the soon-to-be-blitzing cornerback, should have picked him up. Maybe Cousins should have hit a hot read sooner. Either way, with that play Pettine took the Vikings’ proverbial queen and left Cousins and company playing uphill the rest of the way.
The continuity and familiarity Minnesota appears to be banking on to carry this line struggled mightily with the Packers’ frequent edge stunts. In the first quarter O’Neill and Elflein failed to execute a swap of responsibilities and Za’Darius Smith split the duo for a third-down sack of Cousins. It was an all-too-familiar theme, even though the Vikings surrendered just two sacks on the afternoon. A bootleg around an edge left open by a defensive end stunting inside, or a screen into the same open space, might have not only discouraged the Packers from further such games but also set the Vikings up for multiple big gains.
So while Elflein is the PFF (and in all likelihood Vikings Twitter) scapegoat, the Vikings’ OL performance in Week 1 was underwhelming from the top down. Fortunately, Minnesota has a few more live skirmishes before the rematch in Green Bay.
Meanwhile the Vikings will turn their attention to Indianapolis, who handed the Jaguars a gift win in Week 1 thanks to a late Philip Rivers interception. PFF ranked Jacksonville’s offensive line 26th this preseason, three spots behind the Vikings, and that unit was tagged with two of the four Indy sacks in Week 1 (Gardner Minshew was blamed for the other two). Both of the OL-culpable sacks came over the right side of the line.
The biggest name along the Colts’ defensive front is DeForest Buckner, who recorded four tackles but no pressures on the afternoon. Vikings fans may recognize Buckner, acquired in an offseason trade, from his time with the San Francisco 49ers. Lining up primarily against Elflein and Reiff on the right side of the defense, Buckner recorded one sack and four hurries in the Niners’ playoff win over Minnesota. After ducking Kenny Clark for most of Week 1, the interior of the Vikings’ offensive line will have its work cut out again in Week 2.