The Minnesota Vikings’ first win of 2020 came behind the Purple’s first offensive effort to feature a 100-yard rusher and two 100-yard receivers since the days of Robert Smith, Cris Carter and Randy Moss.
Surely that means that four games into the season Minnesota’s offensive line is coming together to pave the way for such success?
What we saw on Sunday was for the most part exactly what you should expect to see from the league’s top rushing team (by yards per carry) against the league’s worst run defense (by rushing yards allowed per game).
Despite that, according to Pro Football Focus the Vikings produced their lowest team run-blocking grade of the season (54.8), offset by their best pass-blocking grade of the year (71.9). Because that’s just how 2020 is going to do us. All. Year. Long.
Not that there weren’t bright spots. In fact, the Vikings’ first play was so well-blocked it likely resulted in a staff-wide case of priapism in the coaching booth that didn’t abate until halftime.
This is what Rick Dennison envisions when he sees his line playing in unison. Dakota Dozier reaches the defensive tackle, allowing Garrett Bradbury to wall off the linebacker. Dru Samia pushes out his defensive tackle. Even Riley Reiff hangs with J.J. Watt, nearly overrunning him but holding him off long enough for Dalvin Cook to burst through for a 10-yard gain. Put it on a loop and run it over and over and over again.
Unfortunately that was the lone blocking highlight of the opening drive, but the Vikings got the band back together on the next drive with another well-blocked play to put Cook in the end zone.
Reiff and Dozier collapse down the line, stemming pursuit. Bradbury gets away with a hold (keep the hands inside the frame, big fella), and Kyle Rudolph contributes as well, and Cook scoots six yards for the score.
Bradbury recorded an 83.7 run-blocking grade from PFF for the day, standing out on my personal tally sheet with multiple instances of making a key block at the second level to spring Cook or Alexander Mattison for additional yardage.
Dozier posted the o-line’s second-best run-blocking grade (58.9), balancing his stat sheet with almost as many positive plays as there were instances where he didn’t stay with his block long enough or failed to scrape off a double-team fast enough to make an effective block at the second level.
Hey, baby steps.
And the fact that the entire unit graded at 64.8 or better in pass protection, while once again causing me to question the accuracy of PFF’s grades (the Texans did, after all, record two sacks, seven hits and four hurries on 25 drop backs), is a positive that can’t be overlooked.
Look, this offense should have blown Houston’s run defense off the page. Broadcast analyst Brock Huard couldn’t emphasize enough how bad the Texans were at setting the edge against the run, and Cook made them pay on multiple occasions.
But once again there were far too many instances where Cook picked up yardage despite the blocking, not because of it. The official count of Cook’s yards after contact for Week 4 was 87, the second-highest total of any Week 4 rusher. Granted, it wasn’t quite Week 3 when Cook collected 119 yards after contact. But it does highlight the wisdom of the Vikings inking Cook to a contract extension, as he consistently bails out this offensive line and makes them look better.
Rather than throw Samia under the bus (again) with a laundry list of his missteps from Week 4 (if I had a quarter for each time I wrote “Watt sheds Samia” in my notes…), I wanted to highlight the communication breakdowns that plagued a line expected to lean heavily on experience and continuity heading into the season.
If someone picks up Hall and gives Cousins just a little more time, Bo Mitchell doesn’t have to write his “Where is Irv Smith” article because Cousin’s hurried toss was directed at an open Smith near the end zone. Instead, it’s a drive-stalling incompletion thanks to a very large man charging unimpeded towards the quarterback.
How does that happen? That’s a 308-pound man right in front of you. Nearly impossible to ignore, but that’s what Samia does. You have to assume Bradbury’s assignment is the defensive tackle lined up directly in front of him, though there could be some sort of line call where Bradbury would be blocking to his right. It’s either a massive miscommunication or a completely blown assignment. Either way, it shouldn’t be happening four games into the season between a center and guard who have taken almost all of the reps side-by-side since workouts began.
And yet late in the fourth quarter, it happens again.
This isn’t even a stunt or an extra rusher, this is a defensive tackle smack dab in the middle of the defense. He needs to be accounted for. Whether it’s Bradbury’s call that Dozier didn’t hear or understand, or Bradbury or Dozier not understanding or executing their assignment, or an incredibly poorly designed blocking scheme, there are very few plays in which the nose tackle can be left unblocked—and a run up the middle ain’t one of them. That Cook gets three yards on this play, 10 of them after contact, is a testament to his skill.
Also worth noting is that on more than one occasion the Vikings used seven players in pass protection, keeping C.J. Ham and a tight end in to help the five offensive linemen. Ham’s value to both Cook and Cousins cannot be overstated.
NEXT UP: SEAHAWKS
With a win over the worst run defense in the league under their belts, the Vikings head to Seattle for an entirely different matchup. PFF gives the Seahawks an overall 83.7 grade against the run, best in the NFL. Contrast that with a 56.0 overall grade in pass rush, 31st overall — though they are coming off a season-best pass rush grade of 65.9 last week against the Miami Dolphins.
Seattle is loaded up front, led by Jarran Reed (76.9 PFF grade against the run plus a sack, two hits and three hurries), Bryan Mone (one sack, four hurries) and L.J. Collier (two hits, four hurries) inside and Benson Mayowa (one sack, two hits, seven hurries) and Damontre Moore (four hits, four hurries) on the edge.
The Vikings will also need to account for safety Jamal Adams, who has two sacks, four hits and three hurries this season. Handling stunts and extra rushers has been a bit of an adventure for Minnesota this season.
On the bright side, this isn’t the Legion of Boom defense anymore, and there won’t be a crowd to drown out whatever line calls the Vikings try to make. Is that enough to combat the bright lights of prime time football that always seem to reduce the Vikings to a herd of deer staring down oncoming traffic? You’ll have to wait all day for Sunday night to find out.