Because we’re Minnesota sports fans, we can’t have nice things. Like, for example, a fully functional offensive line. As the Minnesota Vikings were becoming the first team in NFL history to field a 175-yard rusher (Dalvin Cook, 181) and 175-yard receiver (Justin Jefferson, 175) in the same game, they were also managing to do just enough typical Vikings things to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a 31-30 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
And that, of course, included the offensive line. There were a handful of highlights and positives along the way, all flushed down the toilet by an embarrassingly bad performance on the final two drives in which the Vikings first failed to run out the clock to seal the win — and then squandered free yardage in an effort to get into position for a game-winning field goal.
Let’s get the niceties out of the way and highlight some of the positives. Won’t take long.
In the early going there were signs of life and positives to build on from both Dru Samia and Dakota Dozier. On the second drive, which ended after just two plays due to a Cook fumble, each guard produced a smothering seal block on a run their direction to spring Cook for a decent gain. The next drive produced a touchdown thanks to an overall strong line surge and once again standout individual efforts by Samia — who stayed with his block down the field as Cook picked up 10 yards on the drive’s opening play — and Dozier, who pulled and knocked down the run-supporting defensive back in the hole as Cook burst through on his way to the end zone.
While later bright spots were sparse, at least we saw multiple instances where Dozier’s run blocking helped spring Cook for additional yardage. Riley Reiff also showed well on a few run-blocking plays, though sub-50.0 PFF run-blocking grades for Reiff, Dozier and Samia give you an idea of their overall standard of play.
Garrett Bradbury (72.6) and Brian O’Neill (65.8) both graded out well on the run-blocking side according to PFF, but to be honest I’m still trying to figure out how. My unofficial tally showed Bradbury shucked, swum, bowled over or just plain beaten on no less than five running plays where his man either made the tackle or otherwise disrupted the play in a negative fashion. O’Neill didn’t have nearly as many blemishes, but he didn’t have much in the way of standout blocks, either.
Instead, on many plays it was clear the Vikings are extremely fortunate Cook is such a talented ball-carrier, because his speed allowed him to get to the corner or his vision helped him find the seam, and he gained yardage in spite of his blocking. There were also multiple instances where C.J. Ham or one or more of the tight ends provided the key blocks to open space for Cook.
Bottom line: Per the PFF grades this was the Vikings’ worst run-blocking performance of the season. They clocked in with a pedestrian 57.0 for the game, and as you might imagine, their pass-blocking grade was even worse. As a team the Vikings posted a season-low 49.9 pass-blocking grade per PFF.
The tone was set early, on the Vikings’ first drive — a three-and-out. On a second-down screen Samia and Bradbury were too late getting out in front of the play to provide a block, and on third down Samia was driven back into Kirk Cousins for a sack.
With the notable exception of Samia, who posted at least a half-dozen negative pass-blocking plays en route to an “I-didn’t-even-know-grades-went-this-low” 1.4 mark from PFF, a combination of adequate protection and a game plan asking Cousins to get rid of the ball quickly kept the quarterback clean most of the afternoon — right up until the point the Vikings needed them most.
The problems actually started on Kyle Rudolph’s touchdown grab, an amazing one-hander at the back of the end zone necessitated by a rushed throw from Cousins — which, in turn, was necessitated by the right side of the line failing to pick up a blitz.
On the drive to grind clock, poor blocking and an Irv Smith Jr. penalty forced the Vikings behind the chains, at which point the Titans’ interior rush combo of Jadeveon Clowney and Jeffery Simmons took over.
On first and long, Bradbury and Dozier doubled the defensive tackle, and Bradbury didn’t peel off to pick up the blitz. Samia, blocking no one, was far too late to react to the blitz and didn’t get to him either. The Vikings opted for a running play on second and long, then gave Cousins ample time on third-and-long though he chose to check down for a seven-yard gain instead.
The final drive was even worse, as the Titans were in full-on pass rush mode. On first down Bradbury was driven straight back into Cousins, though fortunately Minnesota was bailed out by a hands-to-the-face penalty. The next play three Titans met at the quarterback led by Clowney, who left Dozier in the dust en route to Cousins; the Vikings’ quarterback threw the ball away to save a sack. On second-and-10 Bradbury snapped the ball prematurely, sending Minnesota into a third-and-forever scenario where Samia was walked back into Cousin’s lap for another hurried incompletion.
Finally, on the Vikings’ final offensive snap, Reiff was beaten around the edge and Cousins’ hurried Hail Mary attempt was intercepted. Game over. Welcome to 0-and-3.
Tennessee’s Simmons can send a portion of his Player of the Week bonus to Bradbury, Samia and Dozer after he earned PFF grades of 92.3 in pass rushing and 90.3 in run defense. Using an array of bull rushes, swim moves, hand fighting and a few twists and stunts, the Titans’ defensive interior spent most of the afternoon in the Minnesota backfield — with predictable results for the Vikings.
Minnesota’s guards now rank 80th (Dozier) and 89th (Samia) of 91 guards graded by PFF in run blocking and 66th (Dozier) and 91st (Samia) in pass protection for the season. O’Neill’s 79.6 run-blocking grade ranks 10th among 99 graded tackles. He and Bradbury’s 19th (of 39 ranked centers) run-blocking rank constitute the entirety of the top-20 rankings for the Vikings’ o-line.
Up next for the Vikes: J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans. Oy. As a unit the Texans don’t grade out particularly well, ranking 26th in run defense and 30th in pass rush. However, all three opponents — the Chiefs, Ravens and Steelers — rank in the league’s top 10 in pass protection, with the Ravens and Steelers both in the top five. PFF has Minnesota ranked 29th in pass protection, so this may be an opportunity for Watt and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and his 70.8 pass-rushing grade to give their numbers a boost.
Houston’s road thus far hasn’t been nearly as arduous against the run as the Ravens rank ninth in run blocking, the Chiefs 19th, and the Steelers 32nd. Ranked 17th by PFF, the Vikings will on paper be the second-toughest run-blocking unit the Texans have faced. But how much game script dictates the Vikings’ run/pass balance depends on whether or not the Minnesota defense can slow Deshaun Watson and the Houston offense. And right now, the recommendation is to not hold your breath.