The list of positives coming out of the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 6 stink bomb against the Atlanta Falcons is short and for the most part consists of two words: Justin and Jefferson. But all eyes — okay, some eyes; okay, my eyes — were fixated on another Minnesota rookie making his first NFL start.
With both Pat Elflein and Dru Samia out with injuries, the Vikings tossed second-round selection Ezra Cleveland into the right guard vacancy. In the days following the draft, Vikings fans were fired up about the athletic addition to their offensive line, but until the Atlanta game we had yet to see Cleveland on the big stage. Finally, his moment arrived. Given the performance of his predecessors this season the bar was set pretty low; how did Cleveland stack up?
Cleveland was a left tackle throughout his collegiate career, but so far with the Vikings he’s been working almost exclusively at guard — left guard in the preseason, then on the right side with Samia sidelined.
The end result of Cleveland’s first start was certainly not pretty, though no one on the line played particularly well, and the absence of Dalvin Cook torpedoed the ground game. In fact, Cleveland’s PFF grades looked a whole lot like those Elflein and Samia recorded before him, at least on the pass-blocking side. Cleveland graded out with a 27.5 in pass protection — actually the third-best score by a Vikings’ right guard this season, even though it marked the fifth time in six games Minnesota’s right guard scored less than a 30.0.
Cleveland was tagged with a team-high five pressures (one sack, three hits, one hurry). He had an embarrassingly bad sack allowed late in the third quarter when Allen Bailey went right through him, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen on a regular basis from Elflein and Samia.
Yes, Cleveland was run over, but you can see he had the presence of mind to push his defender past where he thought the pocket would be. And all Cleveland did was saved Dakota Dozier the embarrassment of having given up the exact same sack on the other side of the line a fraction of a second later.
Cleveland received a 51.3 run-blocking grade from PFF, well below Elflein territory but better than all of Samia’s grades except for the Seattle game (53.7). He also showed something we haven’t seen from Minnesota’s right guards in quite some time: an ability and willingness to put defenders on the ground. In this clip Cleveland drives his defender seven yards down the field.
Even though his defender is at the bottom of the pile and makes the tackle, any play in which you’re on top of the guy you were supposed to block and action is taking place seven yards down the field — you won that rep.
Truth be told, Cleveland’s performance didn’t seem nearly that bad to me. There were plenty of tackle traits still evident in his game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When stepping laterally he frequently seemed to overstep, as if he were kick-sliding to pick up an edge rusher. He also showed a knack for pushing a defender just past the quarterback in the pocket, even when beaten. That may have adversely affected his PFF grade, but it kept Kirk Cousins upright and focused downfield.
When looking away from a man up on him, Cleveland kept his arm out and often kept a hand on the defender so as not to lose track of them. He also “looked for work” when uncovered, searching for someone to block when he was otherwise unoccupied.
The Falcons ran multiple players at Cleveland over the course of the game, from beefier interior linemen to stand-up linebackers. He generally held his ground against the bigger foes and battled the speedier, more athletic linebackers on an even basis. His ability to hand-fight defenders seemed far better than that either Elflein or Samia have shown; again, that’s the inner tackle in Cleveland coming through.
Cleveland also seemed more aware of loops and stunts; even though he didn’t always respond quickly enough to make the block he outperformed both of his predecessors in this area as well.
Many, if not all, of Cleveland’s other struggles can be attributed to a lack of reps with the first unit and/or a player making his NFL debut. He was far from an All-Pro out of the gate, but he demonstrated more than enough ability to earn future work with an eye towards improving the overall offensive line play. Whether the Vikings ultimately decide that will be inside at guard or outside at tackle remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Cleveland gets a test run at both spots over the remaining couple months of this mostly lost season.
NEXT UP: GREEN BAY REDUX
The Vikings return to action with a rematch against Green Bay. Elflein was designated to return from IR, but all that does is open up a three-week window where he can work with the team as the Vikings decide whether or not to add him back to the active roster. No word on if that happens this week; expect the Vikings to make us wait until Sunday to find out if he or Cleveland get the nod at right guard.
Either way, Packers interior defenders Kingsly Keke and Kenny Clark have to be licking their chops. Keke has nine pressures (two sacks, seven hurries), tied for second on the team, while Clark picked up four hurries last week after missing most of the Vikings’ game and the Packers’ next three tilts.
Meanwhile, tackles Brian O’Neill and Riley Reiff will have their hands full with edge rushers Za’Darius Smith (19 pressures), Rashan Gary (nine pressures) and Preston Smith (eight pressures). That battle has skewed decidedly in Green Bay’s favor in the past.
It will be another test for a Vikings offensive line that has been swimming upstream all year long. And if they need to perform without Cook again this week, it becomes that much greater of a challenge.
But hey, draft position, right?