For 11-year veteran Joe Berger, it’s a “been there, done that” mentality.
Berger could be called upon to be a starter one again with center John Sullivan remaining out with back spasms for the last three weeks. Sullivan didn’t practice again Monday, although head coach Mike Zimmer said he was “encouraged” with Sullivan’s progress and might work him into some form of practice on Tuesday.
But if Sullivan isn’t ready to start next Monday night against the San Francisco 49ers, the Vikings will call upon Berger, who has started 38 of 99 games played in his 10-year NFL career.
“You’ve always got to prepare to start. Right now I’m out there at the center spot and that’s my mentality,” Berger said. “If it changes, it changes. That’s not my concern.”
In his four seasons with the Vikings, Berger has started 18 games. Most of those came at guard, where Berger filled in for Brandon Fusco at right guard for nine games last season.
Sullivan hasn’t missed a game since 2011, but Berger said he’s ready if needed.
“Yeah, of course. That’s why I’m here, so obviously we all want the starting five out there. If they can’t be for some reason, that’s why I’m here,” he said.
But while Berger will have to concentrate mainly on his job if needed, if Sullivan can’t play it would mean four of the five starting spots on the offensive line would be occupied by guys who weren’t in that position last year. Matt Kalil remains at left tackle, but Brandon Fusco has moved from right guard to left guard, Mike Harris has moved from a backup right tackle to starting right guard, and T.J. Clemmings is taking over for the injured Phil Loadholt at right tackle.
“Joe’s a really smart guy, and he helps with a lot of that stuff. And Fusco’s smart, too. Don’t tell him I said that,” Zimmer said. “But those guys can help that other side, and they’re communicating. And T.J.’s really into it as far as the things that he has to do, and Harris has played long enough that it’s just a different spot for him. No, I’m not concerned.”
The onus could be on Berger to be on point with his calls for the offensive line and making sure Harris and Clemmings, who have played at right guard and right tackle for the Vikings in regular-season game, are getting the calls properly.
“Anytime you’re a center, you’ve got to be clear with your calls. Those guys know what they’re doing,” Berger said. “They’ve been in here since Day 1, T.J. and Mike last year, and they’ve worked hard to learn the offense. They’re great athletes. They’re great guys to have in the room. I don’t worry about doing anything different with them. They know the calls.”
The Vikings had the opportunity to work the starting offensive line with Berger at center the last three preseason games, so that should help if he’s needed to step in for Sullivan.
“Anytime you get to work with the first team, it’s good,” he said. “The whole point of the O-line is you all work together as one, so the more time you spend with the guys that are out there the better it’s going to be.
“… Obviously you want the starting five healthy the whole year, but that’s not reality in the NFL in most cases anyway. I think we’ve got a good room and good group of guys that likes working together.”