Sunday slant: Onus on the offensive line

With many of the Minnesota Vikings’ positions appearing upgraded, the success of the season could rest on the line.

Nearly everywhere observers looked in the first two weeks of training camp, the Minnesota Vikings roster seemed stronger.

The ever-improving defense has a solid corps of starters and deep group of rotational players for pass rush and run stopping. The linebackers, while still searching for the ideal situational combination, look deeper than in recent years, with players that made the team in the past being bumped to the roster fringe with the addition of Eric Kendricks and continued emergence of Gerald Hodges. The secondary is deeper with legitimate talent than it has been in perhaps more than a decade.

On offense, the receivers are deeper and faster than they have been in a long time. Adrian Peterson is back and supported by backups that combined for 1,108 yards in Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata. The tight ends, as long as Kyle Rudolph stays healthy, have a good mix of versatility in role players (MyCole Pruitt as a movable threat and Rhett Ellison as an adept blocker). And as long as Teddy Bridgewater stays healthy, the quarterback position should be good.

And then there is the offensive line, with nearly every returning starter on that line admitting a bounce-back year is mandatory.

“The offensive line is really what’s going to take this team where we want to be,” guard Brandon Fusco said. “We’ve got to protect Teddy and the sack number last year was pretty high. It was ridiculous. We put it upon us to take pride in protecting the quarterback and dropping that sack number way down.”

Fusco is spot on, as usual. Offensive linemen typically aren’t the type to sugarcoat too much. They are the blue-collar, truth-speaking types with a sense of self-responsibility. And if their responsibility is to protect Bridgewater, it was shaky at best last year.

Bridgewater, despite playing in only 77 percent of the offensive snaps for the Vikings, was sacked 39 times. That was seventh-most among NFL quarterbacks last year and no one ahead of him had as few as Bridgewater’s 402 passing attempts.

Some of that is on Bridgewater and he knows it. He admitted during his season that he held onto the ball too long for a stretch of games, and he did. The combined 13 sacks he took against Detroit and Buffalo in a two-game October stretch were at the height of that sack-taking misery. Eventually, he grasped that learning process and has emphasized quicker feet all offseason – hitting his back foot and throwing.

But up and down the offensive line, there were problems, too.

In a well-chronicled and scrutinized season, left tackle Matt Kalil struggled as he played through injuries (he was the only offensive player in for every snap of the season). And he knows how big this season could be for his football future.

“I always have something to prove,” he said. “Definitely a chip on my shoulder this year, but I have no doubt in my ability and what I can do this year.”

While Kalil became the poster boy for the protection problems, he was hardly the only issue. Fusco was lost for the season in Week 3, Bridgewater’s first start of the season, with a pectoral injury. Phil Loadholt suffered that injury in November, too, and was gone for the final five games. And Charlie Johnson was on his last NFL leg.

This year, both Kalil and Fusco say they are fully healthy, and Loadholt has been pretty much a full-time fixture at right tackle with the first team. But the issues went beyond just health.

Bridgewater said Kalil has looked “very good” in training camp and Zimmer said Kalil is getting better. Maybe the threat of Peterson running the ball will keep defensive linemen on their heels a bit more. But Peterson also has to get used to serving as a last line of defense for Bridgewater, too.

“Protection-wise, it’s a combination. It’s not just offensive line. It’s the running back making a pickup or the quarterback holding onto the ball or the tight end not blocking somebody and staying in protection. It’s really a mixture of things,” Fusco said. “It’s really communication, everyone (being) on the same page. That’s why we have training camp to get all that stuff figured out.”

Sunday night’s preseason opener won’t be much of a test for the first-line offensive line. It will likely experience a couple series and have it called a night for them. But working together this preseason is key, especially with Fusco now on the left side of the line and Mike Harris trying to win a starting spot at right guard.

Zimmer said he believes the line is working more on pass protection than it ever has. They should after last year’s struggles.

“I really think it’s more pride. I don’t think it’s pressure,” Fusco said. “We know what we can do. We’re confident in what we do. Really it’s just go out there and do it and protect Teddy. That’s what we do.”

Kalil believes that simply eliminating mistakes will give the team eight wins. Start dominating and it could be a playoff team.

“Offensive line, defensive line, that’s the heart of any team,” Kalil said. “As long as we’re playing well up front and in the trenches, I think we’ll definitely be a hard team to beat.”

With many of the other positions appearing set, the onus is on the O-line.

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