Luke Inman contributed video to this story. Photos via USA Today Sports.
Take a closer look at some of the Minnesota Vikings’ biggest moments from Sunday’s playoff win, and you’ll observe Kirk Cousins’ pocket poise, Dalvin Cook’s speed and Adam Thielen’s hands. But the unsung hero from Sunday’s win may very well have been right tackle Brian O’Neill, who neutralized the Saints’ most intimidating pass rusher Cameron Jordan, as he’s done to many defensive ends this year.
On the Vikings’ final two passing plays of the game, O’Neill held firm against Jordan in one-on-one assignments, helping give Cousins a clean pocket to connect with Thielen for a 43-yard strike in overtime, then a four-yard game-winning fade to Kyle Rudolph.
The first to greet Rudolph in the corner of the end zone was none other than O’Neill, whose boisterous shouts could be heard loud and clear on the TV broadcast of the celebration. O’Neill doesn’t get much camera time; most good linemen don’t unless they’ve blown an assignment or committed a penalty. Many national types couldn’t tell you that O’Neill is at the center of the Vikings’ improved offensive line after one of the best seasons a Vikings tackle has had in years.
Just don’t ask O’Neill if he’s having any fun.
“I’m trying not to have fun right now,” O’Neill said Wednesday, “because I’ve got a job to do and we’ve got to take care of business, but I want to give ourselves the best chance to win because winning is fun. I like winning. Winning’s fun. I want to do that.”
THE MATURATION PROCESS
In the spring of 2018, O’Neill occasionally caught passes at OTAs with the tight ends — his former college position early in his Pittsburgh playing career. He was mobile, but lean for a tackle, and it didn’t appear as if he’d start Week 1 for the Vikings after being a second-round pick. The jury was out. Was this another dubious offensive line pick by general manager Rick Spielman or just a late bloomer?
Pundits labeled O’Neill a project, and some wondered if he would need a quote-unquote redshirt season in 2018 to develop. But lack of tackle depth on the roster and a Week 5 injury to starting tackle Rashod Hill sent O’Neill into duty unexpectedly. Twenty-seven starts later, O’Neill is a key cog in the Vikings’ offensive plan. Minnesota often talks about marrying the running game and the passing game, and no player is as consequential to the success of both than O’Neill’s blocking.
“He’s got a chance to be a really, really good player if he continues to improve, continues to get stronger and more physical,” said head coach Mike Zimmer, “because he’s smart and he’s tough. Rick Dennison and Andrew Janocko have done a great job with him about changing up sets, not doing the same thing every time.”
Out of all tackles who played 80 percent or more of snaps this season, only Baltimore’s Ronnie Stanley allowed fewer pressures than O’Neill in the regular season. O’Neill allowed a pressure every 51 snaps this year, almost double the efficiency of his blocking as a rookie when he allowed one every 26.
As O’Neill tells Zone Coverage, his second season has been about understanding the nuances of the offensive line position with Dennison, his new position coach, guiding him.
“When I was playing stuff last year, I just hadn’t had a lot of time on task,” O’Neill said. “Just getting into the deeper levels of technical stuff. It’s not just, ‘This is how you set.’ It’s where’s the defender lined up? How far away is he from you? How long is the quarterback going to be holding the ball for? What’s the route depth? All the different details and inner levels and intricacies. Maybe last year was just, ‘You block that guy and figure it out.’ This year it’s, ‘Let’s do it better.'”
O’Neill’s performance, combined with his durability, is a combination the Vikings have been missing for years. Had O’Neill not sat out the team’s Week 17 game versus Chicago for rest, he likely would’ve led the Vikings offense in snaps played while remaining their most effective blocker — a welcome tonic for an offensive line that had undergone massive turnover since 2016.
The right tackle has added noticeable weight and strength in his second year, helping him contend with the league’s top pass rushers like Chicago’s Khalil Mack and Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith.
“I’m stronger, faster, quicker. I think I can bend better. I think I’m a better athlete,” O’Neill rattled off, “but I’m not going to go run a 40 to find out.”
According to the analytics site Pro Football Focus, O’Neill has only been held responsible for one sack in his career, which occurred in his most recent regular season start against the Green Bay Packers. O’Neill, though, doesn’t take any satisfaction in that stat since, well, he doesn’t believe it.
“I’m responsible for others,” he said. “I definitely have played a part in more than one sack.”
Vikings fans are likely to forgive him, though. From botched draft picks like Matt Kalil and T.J. Clemmings to short-lived free agent endeavors like Andre Smith, Mike Remmers and Jake Long, Minnesota was due to get one right.
STAYING IN HIS LANE, PICKING UP OTHERS (LITERALLY)
Even though O’Neill has become the offensive line’s most valuable piece, he’s still only three months older than the youngest starter of the group, center Garrett Bradbury. Pat Elflein is completing his third season, Josh Kline his seventh and Riley Reiff his eighth.
As his play improves, one might think O’Neill’s voice would be gaining more influence in the offensive meeting rooms. But O’Neill doesn’t feel entitled to that, at least not until his own game reaches his lofty standards.
“I’m not really sure I want [more of a voice], to be honest,” O’Neill told Zone Coverage. “I think what I want to be increased is the productivity that No. 75 provides at right tackle, because I think that is the biggest room for growth for anybody. I can’t be worried about Josh or Garrett or Pat or anybody until I improve myself to the point where I know I’ve got it covered. … I try to just stay in my lane, do my job, help us as much as I can. If I see something I’ll say it, but that’s just because we’re a close-knit group.”
But whether O’Neill realizes it or not, his influence comes from his energy. O’Neill has been the instigator this year of a new post-touchdown tradition, a by-product of his youthful exuberance.
When he runs to a teammate after they reach the end zone, he picks them up. If it were the Lion King, he’d be Rafiki and they would be Simba.
“I just see them, and I say, ‘Oh sh–, I don’t know what to do.’ Sometimes they just jump, and it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re doing it.’ It just happens.”
In the celebratory Vikings locker room last Sunday, Cousins dropped a signature “You like that!?” to the team. The group exploded with roars, and O’Neill raced over to Cousins and began shaking him with excitement.
“I’ve been waiting for him to say that,” O’Neill said. “It was good, it was cool, it was awesome, it was a win.”
The young right tackle is becoming the pulse of the Vikings offensive line.
REVIEWING THE TAPE
If he hadn’t done so already, O’Neill demonstrated his worth in his first playoff start last weekend, matched up against Jordan — one of only three players with 40 or more sacks since 2017.
Per Pro Football Focus, O’Neill was the fourth-highest-rated Vikings offensive player in the game. He had the second-highest run blocking grade and won some critical reps against Jordan to open up explosive plays.
Cousins’ 43-yard play-action strike to Thielen in overtime came from a clean pocket because O’Neill kept Jordan out of Cousins’ face in a one-on-one blocking situation.
“I was just trying to hold on for dear life because I knew I had a one-on-one there,” he said after the game, “so once the ball was thrown, I was like, ‘Oh, sh–. Did he score? Is this over?”
The play prior O’Neill was just as integral, sealing off Jordan to open up a hole for Dalvin Cook’s 11-yard burst.
“Those guys did a great job up front blocking for Kirk and opening holes up for whoever was in the backfield running the football,” Cook said Tuesday, “and you’ve got to commend those guys for going in and doing a good job.”
The Vikings had three plays of 20 or more yards in the game, and O’Neill was a key piece of all three.
In the second quarter, O’Neill reached the second level and blocked linebacker Kiko Alonso to spring Cook for 22 yards during a Vikings field-goal drive.
And on Cousins’ 34-yard pass to Thielen in the third quarter, he repelled David Onyemata to keep Cousins’ vision clear. Cousins wasn’t as lucky on his blind side, where he got hit from behind, but the quarterback got enough on the pass to connect with Thielen.
“A lot of confidence in Brian,” said Cousins, “confidence in the entire offensive line. They’ve worked very hard and have done a great job all year. They’re a great group. They work really well together as a unit. They’re well-coached, and they’re a big reason why we’re still playing football here in mid-January.”
O’Neill played a season-high 79 snaps in the overtime thriller, delivering some of his finest individual efforts as the game got deeper. He said he was never intimidated by the moment, that all he needed was “three deep breaths” to gain his composure.
The Vikings face an even tougher test Saturday against the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive front, which O’Neill says is one of the best he’s seen. But as O’Neill’s technique has improved, so has his confidence.
“The reason I’m here and the reason I’m a good player is because I paid attention to my details,” he said, “do what my coaches tell me. And we all have that same attitude.”