Sometimes you just know it’s going to be one of those days.
After forcing what would turn out to be the Chicago Bears’ only punt of the afternoon, the Minnesota Vikings ran a straight drop-back pass from their own 11-yard line. What happened next has become all too familiar when the Vikings use straight drops this season.
All-Pro journeyman defensive lineman Brent Urban pushing Dakota Dozier eight yards deep into the backfield to split a sack with Bilal Nichols, who used that tricky new-fangled “spin move” technique to leave Garrett Bradbury in his wake en route to the quarterback.
We all know where the game went from there. It was the Vikings’ third-worst pass-blocking performance of the season per Pro Football Focus (trailing losses to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 6 and Tennessee Titans in Week 3) and fourth-worst run-blocking effort of the year (trailing the Week 4 win over the Houston Texans and the Atlanta and Tennessee games).
Ha! And here you thought the Vikings’ o-line couldn’t be worse. They already have! Twice!
To underscore the point, with Minnesota facing one final fourth down and the team’s playoff hopes on life support, the protection once again failed spectacularly.
Without knowing the play call and assignments it’s tough to pinpoint blame here. Is the play designed to “influence block” Urban off the edge? Did Brian O’Neill not realize Tyler Conklin motioned out of the right slot and was no longer there? That’s the only logical explanation for him ignoring Urban and blocking… well, first he hit Ezra Cleveland before moving on to Akiem Hicks. Were the Vikings (understandably) so worried about Hicks that they opted to double him, unblocked Urban be damned?
Whatever the case, Kirk Cousins was pressured into an Uncle Rico-like heave towards Conklin, one that fluttered harmlessly to the ground and all but sealed the Vikings’ fate.
What’s that, you say? There was still a Hail Mary to salvage the season? Yeah, how’d that work out for ya?
Chicago rushed three. The Vikings kept Dalvin Cook in to help because five-on-three is still “advantage: other guys” when it comes to this line and pass protection. And when Cook stayed in, the spy the Bears kept on him came at Cousins and didn’t let him step into his desperation heave into the end zone where Adam Thielen was being mugged but they don’t call pass interference on Hail Mary’s except when it’s Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski against the Vikings and…
So here we sit, with two weeks left of a lost season. What can be done with regards to the Vikings’ offensive line to turn things around in 2021?
For starters, how about test driving someone other than Dozier at left guard?
The Vikings have given Dozier 939 snaps this season. Give him kudos for his durability — only nine guards have played more this season — but it’s kinda like keeping the band-aid on the amputated stump of an arm in that it’s really not helping.
Dozier’s pass-blocking grade of 38.9 ranks 111th among guards this season. So if every team started two guards, and then had a backup, Dozier would be the 15th best option after that. Hey, dude’s carved out a seven-year NFL career and I’m sure he’s a nice fellow, but the Vikings need to upgrade at the position — and this year, just like the last several, we mean it.
The conversation could begin with Brett Jones. He graded significantly better in his brief tenure at right guard than Dozier has at left, and while Jones may not be the answer, he’s at least less of a part of the problem. How about some snaps for Jones on the other side of the line to see if he can be a swing guard who doesn’t send shivers up the collective spines of Cousins and the Minnesota fan base when he trots onto the field? Don’t tell me that wasn’t your response when O’Neill and then Rashod Hill went down with injuries last week and Dru Samia entered the game. Even though he ended up not actually playing, the damage was done.
We’ve seen enough of Samia to know that we’ve seen enough. That leaves Hill and Oli Udoh as the only other offensive linemen currently on the Vikings’ active roster, and the team appears to view both as tackles. But the team also seems to value position versatility, and it wouldn’t hurt anything to see what the big fellas can do inside. If nothing else, it would provide options when it comes to decisions about Reiff’s roster spot and Cleveland’s future position going forward.
Speaking of Reiff, if the Vikings plan to keep him but want Cleveland to be their left tackle of the immediate future how about giving Riley a test drive at guard?
Reiff has been the Vikings’ best offensive lineman this season, and a look at his neighbors in the PFF tackle grading only underscores that fact: Reiff ranks 29th in pass protection, in the neighborhood of perennial All-Pros Tyron Smith (25th) and Mitchell Schwartz (26th), tied with Carolina’s Taylor Moton — who, like O’Neill, is expected to command big bucks this offseason — and a couple of spots ahead of Jets rookie wunderkind Mekhi Becton (32nd). Keeping him at tackle would seem to be the prudent move, but say a tackle fell into the Vikings’ laps on draft day; having info about how Reiff handles being a guard only arms Rick Spielman with more info to make that decision (here’s a hint: take the frigging tackle).
There are four offensive linemen currently on the Vikings’ practice squad as well. Maybe don’t trot them out against the New Orleans Saints, who per PFF are the league’s top-graded run defense and eighth in rushing the passer; the league doesn’t want a class-action lawsuit about all the Christmas dinners purged due to Cousins being decapitated behind substandard protection. Then again, will anyone even notice?
Seriously, though, the Vikings seem to like Aviante Collins; why not give him some run at left guard to see if that faith can be rewarded? Sixth-round pick Blake Brandel is more of a tackle-type, but we thought the same of Cleveland and he’s worked out okay. Seventh-rounder Kyle Hinton had some enjoyable tape of him flattening Division II competition; give him a go at the big boys. The Vikings have had a little bit of success with small-school guys; maybe you’ve heard? And Zack Bailey, added from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers practice squad, played all over the line in college and if nothing else has a beard that should be rewarded with at least a little bit of front-line playing time.
No, the Vikings shouldn’t write off the season. But unlike other years, a Vikings loss on Christmas shouldn’t sabotage the holiday spirit or create a pain requiring numerous spiked egg nogs to alleviate. What we do need to see in New Orleans is a sign of hope on the offensive line. Doesn’t need to be a star, a star, shining in the night — although we wouldn’t turn down O’Neill demonstrating he deserves a fat offseason payday or Cleveland showing he’s ready for the next level in Year 2. But we’ve seen enough of the manger fodder this season; time for some wise men to step up and play “Little Drummer Boy” on opposing defensive fronts for a change.