There was much controversy throughout the week leading up to the Minnesota Vikings’ 34-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers. It centered (no pun intended) around Mason Cole and Garrett Bradbury. Cole filled in admirably with Bradbury on COVID reserve. It was only natural for the Vikings beat to ask about Cole possibly staying in the lineup, considering Bradbury’s unfavorable reputation.
After a week shrouded in secrecy, Cole trotted out against Green Bay with Bradbury active and on the bench. The coaches would have you believe that this was a temporary measure as Bradbury continues to recover from a respiratory illness. But what if it isn’t? If Cole truly is the Vikings’ center now, some things about the offense will change. Over the week, we’ll find out if Bradbury re-takes first-team practice reps or if Cole has conquered the starting job. But for now, let’s look at what the offense becomes with Cole in the lineup.
If asked why Bradbury got benched, most people would point to his general lack of anchor. Unfortunately, Cole doesn’t have a great anchor either. It leads to some ugly losses. Bradbury’s lowlight reel isn’t any better. But this is far from the most significant impact a center can have on a play. These walk-back reps need a little more nuance. Ceding ground in the pocket is never secretly a good thing, but there are varying degrees of failure we should probably work out.
In our sample so far, it doesn’t seem like playing Cole reduces the number of center walk-back reps. You may have more of a problem with that than I do, so to break the tie, we have to look elsewhere in Cole’s game.
There is more to center play than pass-protection anchor. The most important duty a center has is to snap the ball. That may seem simple and routine, but not for Cole, who has had a problem with this for years:
That problem reared its head last week against the Los Angeles Chargers, disrupting the timing of what could have been a big play:
Cousins’ dropback is slowed as he has to scoop the snap off the ground. This makes him late to hit the top of his dropback, so there isn’t as much space between him and the incoming pressure, which is also Cole’s. Credit Cousins for finding a completion despite all this. Against Green Bay, Cousins almost couldn’t corral a snap low and to the outside. These small disruptions in timing can lead to much bigger problems down the road.
The next most important job a center has is to call protections. This is a difficult job reserved for only 32 people in the world. In the last three games, the Vikings have allowed far too many unblocked rushers in the middle. Some unblocked rushers are unavoidable, and offenses might even want them. After all, a blitz off of the edge means an unoccupied flat, and the Vikings love to get Dalvin Cook in space. One of the best offensive plays Minnesota had against Green Bay came with unblocked pressure.
However, there have been too many botched protections in Cole’s three games as a starter. We can’t know for sure who is at fault without being in the offensive line meeting room, but the center holds the primary responsibility. If Cole gave an order and one of the other linemen did not hear it, we could shift blame accordingly. Until we learn this, however, the default state is to blame the center (and, to some degree, Cousins could have vetoed any of these).
The run game
Finally, the Vikings have greatly changed their run game in the last few weeks. Maybe this is thanks to Bradbury’s absence, or perhaps it’s a general adjustment to help a struggling offense, but it’s worth pointing out. Garrett Bradbury’s reputation, both in college and the pros, derives from his reach blocking. Reach blocks are blocks that require an offensive lineman to cross the face of a defensive lineman, turn his hips back the other way, and seal him off. They are notoriously difficult, and there might not be anyone better in the league at them than Bradbury.
Reach blocks are a staple of zone blocking, which the Vikings have employed for several years now. But with Cole at center, they’ve used a lot more power concepts and “duo.” Without getting too deep, the key difference is the greater use of more direct down blocks. Every design is different, but this has left one fewer blocker in the second level on many occasions. Most runs that get to the second level are already successful, but this limits their explosiveness.
A power-based run game may not be worse; it’s just different. Against Green Bay, the Vikings started 15 of their series with runs. Fourteen of them converted into a first down or touchdown. They have been more consistent than explosive. If that consistency can continue — and if it’s worth a drop-off in other categories of offensive line play — remains to be seen. There’s just as good of a chance that the run game falls off as more teams have tape on the newfangled approach.
Cole probably isn’t the answer if the idea behind changing centers is to limit the amount of ground ceded in pass protection. For me, that’s not the goal anyway. Maybe swapping to a gap-based rushing system has some momentum. But is it worth a decline in the two most important jobs a center has (snapping and calling protections)? Perhaps you could draw up a statistical argument either way, but not without adding the context of Mike Zimmer’s simultaneous directive of aggression. In any case, we might get more of a sample if the Vikings choose to stick with Cole. Or, they were telling the truth all along, and Bradbury will return against San Francisco. Time will tell.