Vikings pleased with protection plan to date

The Vikings believe they are protecting better because of a number of factors.

John Sullivan doesn’t know of another offensive line that has been together for three years, as is the case with the Minnesota Vikings.

The fruits of that continuity could be starting to show in practices and in games.

In the preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders, the Vikings gave up six sacks. Only one of those came in the first two series, when the starting offensive line was playing, and even that one is generally put on quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who held the ball before having it stripped away from him. Fortunately for the offense, tackle Matt Kalil dove on the ball and gave the team a chance at a field goal.

That was only part of Kalil’s contribution to the protection plan.

“It’s nice to get Kalil back where he’s starting to get into the mix a little bit more. He missed a lot of time in OTAs (recovering from knee surgery),” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “Getting all those guys going back together is good. Sullivan does a nice job making sure where guys are going. They all played pretty well the other day.”

John Sullivan could be the key. The Notre Dame product has been starting for five years and worked himself into a veteran mentor, according to numerous teammates, that is a master at diagnosing defensive pressure.

Against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night, the starting offensive line was even sharper. The starters played the entire first half, didn’t yield a quarterback sack and allowed only one quarterback hit against a combination of the Cardinals’ starters and second-team defenders.

“It was a point of emphasis for us from Coach Zimmer, it was to keep the pocket cleaner,” Sullivan said of the pass protection. “I think it was just a better experience. Week 1, not to make excuses, but that was a totally new scenario, going to a new stadium, going through a new pregame warm-up routine. I think everybody was much more comfortable with just a week under their belt coming in this past Saturday, preparing for the Cardinals and going out there and executing as well as we could.”

It didn’t hurt to have the veteran savvy of Matt Cassel knowing when to hit his hot routes and where the Cardinals were leaving some vulnerabilities. The 32-year-old Cassel unconventionally scrambled three times in the first half for two first downs and a combined 30 yards.

Sullivan laughed at that but also pointed out that Cassel’s experience allowed him to recognize when the opening was there to run. As he pointed out in training camp, pass protection is more than just the offensive line. It’s also the running backs picking up free blitzers, tight ends knowing when to chip for help, receivers knowing when to run the hot route and quarterbacks realizing when to throw it quickly and when to run if necessary.

Zimmer termed the offensive line play on Saturday night “very good.”

“One of the things I asked about last week, which I was proud of, we’ve got to pass protect better, which I thought we did,” he said. “I thought we had to rush better and we did in that ballgame. So that part was good to see. But I thought the offensive line played well.”

There are a number of factors why the Vikings are feeling better about their offensive line play, and getting Adrian Peterson back in the lineup during the regular season should help, too.

They have been going against an aggressive defense every day in practice, which should help when playing against blitz-heavy defenses in the regular season. Jeff Davidson returns for a third season as the offensive line coach, despite a change in offensive coordinator. And this is the third season with the five starters playing together.

“I can’t think of another offensive line that’s been able to do that,” Sullivan said. “Obviously, there’s turnover based on personnel decisions, based on injuries. But I think we have one starter who is 30 (left guard Charlie Johnson). Hopefully we can keep this thing going for a long time.

“I just think we’re making progress very rapidly. We have high expectations of ourselves as an offensive line unit and as a full offense, and obviously as a full team. We were very happy to win that game the other night. We understand it’s just preseason. But we say, ‘Screw that.’ If we’re playing football, we want to win the game.”

Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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