When the Minnesota Vikings revealed that Brian O’Neill and Austin Schlottmann would be headed to season-ending IR, much of the fanbase felt a palpable sense of dread. Minnesota’s offensive line woes have been well-documented in recent years. Suddenly, the team was relying upon their backups to hold their own, with major playoff implications hanging in the balance.
The Green Bay Packers blew out the Vikings, 41-17, in Week 17. The following week they played down to their competition in the first half against the Chicago Bears, a team that was blatantly trying to tank. Nathan Peterman was playing too well, so Matt Eberflus benched him for Tim Boyle, who conveniently threw an interception on his first drive to keep the tank alive.
While the results of each game have been a mixed bag, the individual performances of Minnesota’s backup offensive linemen have been mainly positive. Minnesota currently has two backup offensive linemen in the starting lineup: Oli Udoh at right tackle and Chris Reed at center.
Reed had no experience starting at center before getting the start at Lambeau. His inexperience at the position quickly became apparent, as he frequently had trouble with the snap count and the quarterback-center exchange. He was also penalized twice, often due to miscommunication with Kirk Cousins.
Despite Reed’s early miscues, he did an excellent job in pass protection against a stout Packers defensive line. Reed only allowed one pressure against Green Bay and has yet to allow a sack in his first two starts at center. The following week against the Chicago Bears, Reed had no issues with the snap count and seemed much more comfortable than the week before overall.
Reed has proven himself to be a quality backup for the Vikings, but he’ll go back to the bench with Garrett Bradbury returning to the starting lineup for the playoffs. The same cannot be said for O’Neill, who is out for the season. Udoh will be the starting right tackle for the remainder of the year, meaning he’ll have no room for error.
Udoh’s career has been interesting, to say the least. The Vikings drafted him in the sixth round of the 2019 draft as a toolsy developmental prospect at tackle. He got his first start as a rookie at right tackle in the season finale against Chicago, where he showed some promise, holding his own against Khalil Mack.
The Vikings moved Udoh to right guard in 2021, where he struggled mightily. He finished the season as the fifth-lowest-ranked guard in pass protection, tied for the league lead in penalties at guard, and finished 65th out of 82 ranked guards in overall PFF grade. At this point, much of the fanbase had already lost faith in Udoh, and he was on the roster bubble heading into this season after the team signed Jesse Davis and drafted Ed Ingram. Udoh quietly switched back to right tackle and won the backup job uncontested.
When O’Neill tore his Achilles, Udoh stepped up and performed admirably in Green Bay. He ended up being the team’s highest-graded offensive lineman, which is crazy to think about, considering the Packers targeted him all game. Udoh had an even better performance last week against the Bears, earning a season-high 79.8 pass-block grade.
Want another encouraging sign? Udoh wasn’t even the highest-graded backup offensive lineman from that game. Kyle Hinton finished with a 70.1-overall grade and had the third-highest pass-blocking grade among offensive linemen, behind Christian Darrisaw and Ingram, who has also shown signs of improvement after struggling early in the season.
While two games is a small sample size and PFF grades aren’t the end-all-be-all, the Vikings’ backup offensive linemen are showing signs of growth. Reed and Udoh have been playing at their best when it’s required, and it couldn’t come at a better time, with the playoffs starting next week. If the offensive line’s upwards trajectory continues, the Vikings offense as a whole will be able to play at their peak performance.