Matt Kalil made his rookie season look almost easy last year.
He was chosen fourth overall by the Minnesota Vikings, started at left tackle the minute he hit the practice field and helped pave the way for a 2,000-yard season from Adrian Peterson. He made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement and cemented himself as one of the rising stars at his position with a seamless transition from USC to the NFL.
Kalil's second season is off to a little shakier start, with an uninspiring preseason following a rough showing in the season opener at Detroit. Now Kalil and the rest of Minnesota's offensive line are looking to restore their reputation as one of the best units in the league.
"I'm the hardest person on myself," Kalil said after practice on Wednesday. "I know what I have to fix. I've got my mind straight this week and I'm ready to get after it. I'm not freaked out. I had a bad game."
He wasn't the only one. After a 78-yard touchdown run on the Vikings' first play, Peterson managed just 15 yards on 17 more carries in the 34-24 loss to the Lions. The reigning MVP had nowhere to run, and beleaguered quarterback Christian Ponder was under heavy pressure for most of the afternoon by an aggressive Lions defensive front that controlled the game.
"We have to be better," left guard Charlie Johnson said. "There was one run, obviously, when everybody did their job. That shows we're going to be pretty successful. Outside of that, you don't feel very good about getting stuffed in the run game."
As Kalil reflected on the performance, he sounded like a player who was still working the rust off after seeing extensive action in just one preseason game. He spoke of the increase in speed and intensity, and the adjustment to using a silent count to try to work through the noise at Ford Field.
"There's some things we've got to work with him on," head coach Leslie Frazier said. "We've got to go back and look at his technique, some basic things he did so well a year ago, we have to get back to him doing on a repeated basis. We'll do some technique and fundamental work to get him back on a foundation because we need him to play well on every snap"
Kalil said he would have his head turned in to watch for the snap from center John Sullivan, then drift too far to the outside after the ball was snapped and he turned his attention to the defensive end. That opened an inside rushing lane for the attacking ends, something that Kalil is working hard to address this week in practice.
"Playing well last year, people have higher standards of me, which is fine," Kalil said. "It's not something that I don't already know I have to go and fix. I'm not freaking out. We've still got a long season and I know I'm going to get better and fix those mistakes."
Ponder's performance — 18 of 28 for 236 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a lost fumble — has grabbed most of the attention and criticism this week. But the porousness of the offensive line, coupled with the struggles on defense against a dynamic Lions offense, have served to ease some of the burden on the unproven quarterback's shoulders.
Frazier, Peterson and receiver Greg Jennings were all adamant that the loss to the Lions was a team-wide failure and that concentrating on Ponder's woes was unfair.
"It wasn't just him," Jennings said. "He can't win the game for us. He can't lose the game for us. Trust me. That's the tough role that he has. If we play well, Christian looks great. If we don't play well, Christian will not look great. … He doesn't bear the whole load."
If Ponder is going to succeed in his second season as a starter, he has to get the protection up front that the Vikings expect from a veteran group that returns all five starters.
"We know that they're motivated and they're great players, and we're going to get it corrected," Ponder said. "And there's some things that I can do better, that everyone can do better; the running backs, the receivers and it's something as an offense we can correct as a whole."
It doesn't get much easier this week against Julius Peppers and the Chicago Bears. And the Vikings know an 0-2 start, with two losses in the NFC North, would put them in a big hole right out of the gate.
"There's going to be some wrinkles the first few weeks of football," Kalil said. "As it was last year, we'll get better throughout the season. We'll keep getting better and I think we're real confident this week."
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Kalil, O-line look to plug the leaks
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