Stunts and Twists Doom Vikings O-Line in Tampa

Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA TODAY Sports)

Many, many things went wrong for the Minnesota Vikings in Tampa on Sunday, and while it’s easy — and incredibly GIF-friendly on social media — to direct the bulk of the blame towards the kicking game or the officiating, the offensive line should earn at least as much if not more of the fans’ collective ire.

We’re not breaking any ground here. The Vikings’ offensive line has been a point of contention all season. And the one before that. And the one before that. And… well, you can pretty much go all the way back to the Randall McDaniel era with Minnesota’s O-line issues — and even then we were all over Todd Steussie for his copious false starts.

Clearly, we didn’t know how good we had it.

At this point, McDaniel isn’t walking through that door and the offensive line is what it is: a decent run-blocking unit for one of the best backs in the game, and on its best days a serviceable pass-protecting group that still owes Kirk Cousins a bunch of apologies. And when game script gets away from the Vikings and they’re forced to throw, or for some inexplicable reason they get away from play-action and invite an all-out pass rush with straight drops from Cousins, they’re bordering on an unmitigated disaster.

A couple weeks back the Carolina Panthers added a new wrinkle to the mix. With Minnesota still largely unsettled along the interior, the Panthers busted out an array of stunts and loops that thoroughly flummoxed the Vikings’ blockers. The Jacksonville Jaguars used their own line games to harass Cousins last week, and it was obvious the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked up on this in any film study of the Vikings leading up to last week’s game.

Many, if not most, weeks when breaking down the Vikings’ O-line performance for this space I note their struggles with simple defensive maneuvers like tackle-end twists and loops. These aren’t rocket surgery, as Joe Theismann would say; they’re basic defensive stunts used at every level from high school on up.

But if linemen don’t communicate with each other or don’t have a good grasp of when they need to pass their defender along to someone else and expect a looping or stunting defender to come their way… well, then you get the kind of pressure that causes hurried throws, strip sacks and injured quarterbacks.

To wit…

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Steve McLendon lines up between Dakota Dozier and Riley Reiff. Reiff is justifiably more concerned with Shaquil Barrett on the edge, but Dozier overcommits to McLendon and doesn’t even see Barrett looping behind McLendon. Note that McLendon grabs onto Reiff so even if the plan was for Reiff to somehow follow Barrett, he can’t. Ignoring Barrett is not a wise strategy for an offensive line to employ, but grabbing your own quarterback and helping Barrett throw him to the ground isn’t much of a solution.

If you’re really into line play (like, say, me), check out this week’s Purple Insider podcast from “friend of Zone Coverage” Matthew Coller and former Vikings lineman Jeremiah Sirles, chock full of some real nitty-gritty details about what Vikings linemen need to do to combat the onslaught of stunts they’re sure to see the rest of the way.

It’s also a mental thing: playing together enough to know when you can (or should) pass a defender off to the blocker next to you. At this point Dozier and Reiff should have those kinks worked out.

Like this…

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Sure it’s an incomplete pass, but at least Cousins has time to take his shot downfield. It’s also a poorer effort from the Bucs’ defenders, as Jason Pierre-Paul doesn’t really attack Reiff, so Reiff easily passes him off to pick up the looping Rakeem Nunez-Roches.

Disconcerting on this play is Ezra Cleveland being completely oblivious to the looping Anthony Nelson as Brian O’Neill pushes Ndamukong Suh to the outside. Dalvin Cook bails out the rookie, otherwise we might be looking at a Sean Mannion start this week.

Uff-da, as the kids say.

On this drive-stopping sack from earlier in the second quarter, it’s not so much the stunt as it is a lack of communication among the offensive linemen:

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Garrett Bradbury opts to double with Dozier on William Gholston, leaving Cleveland mano-a-mano with Suh. That’s not a matchup the rookie is going to win much in his first NFL season. And yes, that’s a forearm shiver Suh delivers to Cousins’ back after the play in case you were wondering how his campaign for NFL’s Man of the Year is going.

The communication issues were on display all afternoon, but never more starkly as on the Vikings’ ill-fated drive from early in the fourth quarter where they turned first-and-goal into a long field goal attempt — and you know how that worked out:

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With O’Neill out after having his eye gouged — most certainly an accident on the part of a hard-playing Bucs defender — the Vikings turned to Rashod Hill at right tackle. It’s understandable that Hill and Cleveland may not be on the same page. It looks like Hill intends to push Barrett inside to Ezra and wait for Suh to come around the edge. Unfortunately for Cousins it looks like Cleveland is taking an inside posture on Suh with the intention of keeping him outside. Instead, Barrett splits Hill and Cleveland and holds Cousins up long enough for Suh to blast him as well. Two guys who weren’t starters at the beginning of the year against two of the best in the game is not a matchup favoring the Vikings, and when the defense takes advantage of that inexperience to mess with their minds it’s even worse.

Noted without comment: PFF gave Hill a pass-blocking grade of 81.2 for this game and did not credit him with a sack, hit or hurry. And yes, this play occurred in this game. PFF clearly laid this one entirely on Cleveland, who for the day was tagged with three sacks, two hits and three hurries on his PFF stat sheet.

Without comment… without comment…

One final communication breakdown that all but sealed the Vikings’ fate:

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Another sack that surely was logged by a PFF staffer as entirely Cleveland’s fault, and that is indeed Ezra holding off Pat O’Connor for three Mississippis before losing contact and getting a front-row seat for O’Connor’s first sack of the season.

But how about maybe Bradbury hitting someone — anyone — on this play? He took a step towards helping out Cleveland, then looked like he didn’t want to risk his pristine PFF grade of 77.9 on a guy with zero pressures on the season up until that point and left the rook to fend for himself.

Those are the kinds of plays experienced offensive lines should be making, the whole being better than the sum of the parts even if the parts aren’t that good to begin with. And 13 games into the season, with only one rotating spot along the line… this line needs to be better able to adjust on the fly to teams who will undoubtedly throw stunt after stunt after stunt at them until they demonstrate the capacity to handle said stunts.

And here’s the fun part: The Bucs are the seventh-best pass rushing team per PFF, and now the Vikings get to face the Chicago Bears — who rank fifth. A Bears defense Minnesota limited to one sack, four QB hits, and 11 pressures in Week 10 while missing Akiem Hicks for half the game. A Bears defense coming off a demolition of the Houston Texans’ offensive line — a Houston line that grades out 10 points higher than Minnesota’s in pass protection. A Bears defense that got seven pressures from Hicks as well as five from Brent Urban and four from Mario Edwards Jr. last week.

And a Bears defense with a month of film on how the Vikings (fail to) handle the reindeer games defensive linemen can play.

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Photo Credit: Kim Klement (USA TODAY Sports)

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