Replacement O-line meshing on the fly

The Vikings entered the 2014 season amidst change almost everywhere except the offensive line. But, thanks to a slew of injuries that have knocked three of them out of action, the Vikings have needed to count on their depth along the line to run their offense.

There was a lot of change that took place in the Vikings organization from the time they played their last game of the 2013 season until the start of training camp in July.

Much of the coaching staff had been replaced. A new crop of young players were brought in and veterans like Jared Allen and Kevin Williams were allowed to leave via free agency.

About the only continuity the team had coming into 2014 was that its starting offensive line – tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt, guards Brandon Fusco and Charlie Johnson and center John Sullivan – were all back and ready to be a veteran front wall for the Vikings offense. Much of the discussion in Mankato centered on the continuity the O-line had as a group and the shorthand they had with one another in terms of assignments and blocking schemes.

With three weeks left in the regular season, only two of them – Sullivan and Kalil – are left standing. Fusco and Loadholt are gone for the year after suffering pectoral injuries and Johnson has been sidelined with a leg injury. The offensive line has been going through significant change, but the replacements have been doing their best to hold up and not provide a dropoff in production.

Veteran Joe Berger was the first in the lineup replacing Fusco. Mike Harris came next in relief of Loadholt. Vladimir Ducasse replaced Johnson last week and is expected to hold down the position at left guard until Johnson can return.

It’s been a revolving door, but that’s something backups routinely prepare for.

“It’s a next-man-up mentality,” Harris said. “I know Vlad is going to come in and do a great job for us. This is my third game now. The coaches are expecting me to perform at a high level. Just play ball. That’s it. I’m expecting it to be a good matchup against Detroit. If we’re all on the same page, if we communicate, have no mental errors, with guys coming free to hit our quarterback, that’s one thing we don’t want.”

One of the reasons the Vikings have been able to transition despite the rash of changes is that the offensive line as a group is very tight and they work together, whether they be starters or reserves. As a result, they’re all acutely aware of their assignments when they’re on the field and when the next man up gets his call to duty, he’s prepared.

“As a room, the whole year we’re a pretty close room in the O-line room, and I think that it’s kind of the mentality that when one guy goes down it’s the next guy up,” Berger said. “The expectations are the same, regardless of who it is.”

The replacements were quick to point out that just because fans haven’t heard their names called, they’ve been working just as hard in practice and film study to be ready in the event they were needed on game day. They may be new to their position on Sundays, but they’ve been preparing all season as though they would be starting because they realize how quickly things change in the NFL.

“We’ve all been here since camp,” Ducasse said. “Even though we weren’t starters at the time, we were working together because you never know when you’re going to be needed. Injuries happen in football and you have to be ready when they need you to go in. All of us have been preparing like we will be starting, so when the time comes, we’re ready to step in.”

Although they don’t have the telepathy that comes with experience working together, they’re bracing for the challenge of taking on the stout Lions defense and are confident that they won’t take a step backward as they continue their chip-and-a-chair chance to make the playoffs.

“We’ve just got to play with good technique and be sound. I know it’s going to be loud in Detroit,” Harris said. “We need all five of us on the same page. I know Sully is going to put us in the right spots for us to perform at our best. Like I said, it’s going to be a good matchup for us, and I’m excited for the challenge.”

It’s a challenge that O-line has seemingly had to face on a weekly basis with linemen dropping with such regularity. None of them are using their lack of cohesion as a unit as an excuse. After all, they’re professionals and are expected to play at a high level whenever they take the field – regardless of the line combination that game.

“We’ve made the adjustments each time someone has gone down,” Ducasse said. “We’ve worked all year in practice and in meetings to know our assignments. Everybody has to be accountable and go out and get their job done, whether they’re starting or not. That’s how we’ve looked at it all year.”

If all goes as planned, when training camp opens in 2015, most of the starters will be back and healthy and competing to hold onto their starting jobs. In the meantime, it’s an opportunity for the reserves to make an impression on the coaching staff and potentially fight for starting jobs next year in Mankato and during the preseason.

While it wasn’t the scenario anyone envisioned, the Vikings are trying to make the best of the situation and move on as best they can under the circumstances.

“I think it’s going well,” Berger said. “I think that’s what we’re here for, to be able to come in and play. Obviously we lost some very good players, so we’ve just got to try to fill it up as best we can.”

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