Vikings

The Minnesota Vikings are Banking on Continuity and Experience to Improve the Offensive Line

Sep 15, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to pass while offensive tackle Brian O'Neill (75) tries to block Green Bay Packers defensive end Dean Lowry (94) in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

In a normal year this would be the place where we talk about how cohesive the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has looked throughout the preseason, what with returning four starters from last year’s unit. We’d discuss why Ezra Cleveland is taking snaps with the backups as he transitions to guard, and how he is (hopefully) keeping guys who are currently looking for day jobs from sacking… well, other guys currently looking for day jobs. And we’d feel cautiously optimistic about an improved Vikings line heading into the Week 1 showdown with the Green Bay Packers.

But this is far from a normal year, so none but a select few have had a first-hand look at the offensive line Minnesota will trot out in Week 1. And with no preseason games, that group hasn’t faced anything but friendly fire.

So what do we actually know about the Vikings’ offensive front in its current iteration? Where can expectations be set for the coming season? And specifically, what should we look for in a Week 1 matchup with a Packers’ defensive front that flat-out embarrassed the purple last season?

Let’s start with what we do know, or at least what we think we know.

Vikings coaches played it coy through the start of training camp, noting that four starters were returning but leaving out specifics like Pat Elflein moving to right guard — his third position in three NFL seasons. With Garrett Bradbury, Riley Reiff and Brian O’Neill all back at the same spots as last year, the Vikings will roll over four starters from the previous season for the first time since 2014.

Continuity along the offensive line is a Gary Kubiak/Rick Dennison hallmark from their days together in Houston. Working together with the Texans, the duo returned an average of four offensive line starters each year while winning two division titles and producing a top-10 offense three times.

It’s also worth noting that every team to take the field in each of the last four Super Bowls has returned at least four starting offensive linemen from the previous season. This Zone Coverage article from earlier in the offseason takes a deeper dive into offensive line continuity and what it has meant for the Vikings.

Minnesota’s coaches also talked about an open competition for the guard spots, but that only materialized on the left side with both Dakota Dozier and Aviante Collins taking first-team reps in camp. Speculation that Dru Samia would claim a starting gig never panned out, nor did talk of Reiff kicking inside. Cleveland, the second round pick, moved inside but took his reps at left guard further down the depth chart.

When the proverbial dust had settled, Dozier claimed the starting job at left guard and Collins was left off the final 53-man roster. However, due to the new practice squad guidelines — more players, some veterans allowed — Minnesota brought back Collins as part of a package that includes 10 linemen with Vikings experience, eight on the final 53 and two more on the practice squad. All three offensive linemen drafted by the Vikings remain with the team: Cleveland on the final roster, sixth-rounder Blake Brandel and seventh-rounder Kyle Hinton with the practice squad.

Working with little more than coach-speak and limited media availability from less-than-game conditions, here’s where the bar is set for Minnesota’s offensive line in 2020:

Left Tackle: The Vikings are fortunate Reiff took a pay cut to stick around because the alternatives — throwing Cleveland to the wolves in Week 1, extended playing time for Rashod Hill, sliding O’Neill from the right side to create another hole — would be definite steps backwards. Reiff was an average left tackle last season, and the Vikings would be okay with a repeat performance in 2020.

Left Guard: Dozier’s experience gave him the edge over Collins’ athleticism, though the Vikings are able to keep Collins around on the practice squad in hopes of finally harnessing that athleticism into better technique and productive play. Cleveland has been working primarily at left guard; the coaching staff believes he will benefit from gaining initial NFL experience in tighter quarters inside before being asked to play more in space at tackle. He’s on a similar plan to what the Vikings hoped to do with O’Neill before injuries forced him into the lineup ahead of schedule.

Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Center: Most of Minnesota’s hopes for o-line improvement hinge on last year’s first round pick taking a big step forward in Year 2. Bradbury himself talked about being able to prep for football-related activities all offseason rather than training for the combine by running 40s and benching 225 pounds. Getting stronger and anchoring the middle will be a key for the somewhat undersized center, but everyone from Dennison to the Vikings strength coaches has expressed optimism that Bradbury will be better, smarter, and stronger as a sophomore. Brett Jones remains in town on the practice squad as a backup plan.

Right Guard: Elflein played right guard in college, so the position isn’t entirely new to him. But it is a bit disconcerting that he’ll be playing his third different spot along the line in three NFL seasons. His run blocking is under-appreciated and likely what keeps him employed in Minnesota, but he’ll need to stop being pushed back into Kirk Cousins‘ lap in pass protection before fans giving him the benefit of the doubt. Samia was expected to be elevated to a starting guard gig but with no preseason games he had zero opportunity to show the fan base he deserved playing time over Elflein or Dozier. Hinton is an intriguing small-school project, a future impact player who’ll get to develop on the practice squad.

Right Tackle: O’Neill is blossoming into one of the best young right tackles in football; he’s also due to get paid. Switching him over to left tackle might up the ante a bit, so business-wise it makes sense to keep him on the right side at least until a deal gets done. As the Vikings were reworking Reiff’s contract late in training camp, O’Neill was playing left tackle and Oli Udoh taking reps on the right side — serviceable, but not necessarily in Cousins’ best interest.

So yet again the Vikings enter a season with question marks up front. And those question marks will get an early test against a Green Bay defensive front that feasted on the purple last season.

For the Vikings to have any shot against the Packers, the interior will need to find a way to handle Kenny Clark. Clark recorded 11 pressures and two sacks in the two meetings with Minnesota as Bradbury, Kline, and Elflein/Dozier combined to surrender a whopping 25 pressures and four sacks in the two-game set (Elflein and Dozier each started one game). By comparison the tackle play was almost stout, with Reiff allowing six pressures and O’Neill three. Za’Darius Smith racked up 14 pressures and four sacks moving around the defensive front, while partner in crime Preston Smith added eight pressures and a sack.

Especially in the second matchup the Packers did an outstanding job of scheming matchups to take advantage of Minnesota’s weakest links; with four starters back and an entire offseason to prepare, you would like to think that won’t be as much of a problem for the Vikings in Week 1. It’s a Gary Kubiak-Mike Pettine chess match, with the winner taking early control of the NFC North.

Minnesota’s run-blocking grades in the two meetings with Green Bay speak to what PFF grades can’t tell us about a game: While the Vikings recorded run-blocking marks of 73.3 (second best on the season) and 64.3 (seventh-best) in Weeks 16 and 2, respectively, aside from one 75-yard Dalvin Cook run the Minnesota ground game was largely ineffective. Cook being in the lineup (he didn’t play in Week 16) would help, as would the Vikings not digging a 21-0 hole like they did in Week 2.

Bottom line, the Vikings opted for continuity and in-house solutions to address their offensive line shortcomings. Green Bay will provide an early referendum on how wise that decision was.

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Sep 15, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) looks to pass while offensive tackle Brian O'Neill (75) tries to block Green Bay Packers defensive end Dean Lowry (94) in the second quarter at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

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