You get the impression the Minnesota Vikings offensive line is getting tired of using the phrase, “next man up” – a term applied to a backup coming in to replace an injured starter.
The Vikings O-line has been as decimated with injuries as any team in the league over the last 12 months. Right guard Brandon Fusco was lost in Week 3 of the season, right tackle Phil Loadholt was lost for the year in November and left guard Charlie Johnson missed two games in December.
It’s been a revolving door and it hasn’t let up in 2015. Loadholt is gone after suffering a torn Achilles tendon in August and backup prospect Carter Bykowski was placed on injured reserve, too.
The Vikings were served another devastating blow when it was announced that center John Sullivan, one of the ironmen of the offensive line, was placed on injured reserve with the designation to return, which means he must sit out the first eight games of the season before he could potentially come back.
Once again, “next man up” comes into play.
“That’s been the story of the last couple of year, I guess,” Fusco said. “It’s not a fun thing, but injuries are part of the game.”
The loss of Sullivan now leaves only left tackle Matt Kalil as a starter for Week 1 that was in the same spot on the offensive line in Week 1 of last season. Fusco has moved from right guard to left guard, replacing Johnson, right guard Mike Harris has never played the position in a regular season game, right tackle T.J. Clemmings is a rookie and veteran swingman Joe Berger takes over for Sullivan at center.
If there is a silver lining to the injury, a herniated disc that required a surgical procedure called a lumbar microdiscectomy, it is that Sullivan initially started feel pain in training camp. In what were initially described as back spasms, it was hoped Sullivan would be able to return for the regular season opener, but his recovery progress hit a wall and surgery was deemed the best short-term option.
With Sullivan out the last three preseason games, it gave Berger a chance to assimilate into the offensive line and get his timing down with Teddy Bridgewater as well as his linemates.
“It’s just something you have to prepare for,” Kalil said. “We’ve had Joe in there for a while now. We’re ready to go. We’re prepared. Obviously, it’s a tough loss, but we’re ready to move forward.”
It’s difficult to replace a fringe Pro Bowl player of Sullivan’s caliber, but the Vikings have a lot of confidence that Berger, who replaced Fusco at guard last year when he went down, can get the job done.
His teammates acknowledge that losing Sullivan is a significant blow to the team, but it will require each man on the entire offensive line to step up his game and work harder as a unit to make up for the loss of their veteran leader.
“He’s the leader of the offensive line, so you lose somebody like that, but it’s the way it goes,” Kalil said. “We’ve all got to step up as a group and get ready to play in San Fran. It’s something that we’ve prepared for, so we had the right mindset when we figured out he wasn’t going to be in there. It’s been a three- or four-week deal. It was 50/50 and it could have gone either way. I think we’ve had enough time to prepare without him, but it’s a big loss.”
Berger downplayed his opportunity as the next man up. While he views himself more as a center than a guard from his time in Miami where he played the center position, he didn’t find out until this week that he was going to get pressed into service as the starting center. The hope all along over the last few weeks was that rest would ease the pain Sully was feeling and that he would be back on the field quickly.
Like the rest of us, Sullivan’s teammates only recently found out that he wouldn’t be coming back for the season opener Monday night in San Francisco.
“We were all told the same thing – that we were hopeful that he would able to make it back,” Berger said. “He’s been working like crazy to try to get back. For whatever reason, the decision came down that this was the right thing to do.”
The Vikings are getting painfully used to pulling up players from the second line of the depth chart into starting roles. When everybody is healthy, the Vikings have a strong offensive line, but it doesn’t diminish the confidence they have in one another that they can survive and even thrive despite the adversity they seem to continually be facing.
“When we’re all together on the first group, we’re pretty dang good,” Fusco said. “But every guy in that room we’ve got confidence in that anyone can step up at any time and perform their best. We’ve got a good group, good personalities in the room – that’s what makes it fun for us.”
Sullivan’s leadership will be missed, but the season marches inexorably forward whether a specific player is there or not. The Vikings will feel the sting of losing their veteran center, but the group feels confident that, despite all its changes in personnel, the offensive line can still be a strength of the team and not a weakness. In their minds, it shouldn’t be a reason to think that production of players like Teddy Bridgewater and Adrian Peterson will take dip.
“You don’t miss a step with Joe,” Fusco said. “Joe’s been doing this his whole career – next man up. With T.J. on the line next to Mike, I think that’s a little different, but I think they’re on the same page lately and they’ve been getting a lot better in practice. Protection has been emphasized a lot this year because Coach Zimmer is making us do more one on ones in practice. I’ve never done so many one on ones in my life, but I think it’s paying. We’re taking pride in protecting Teddy and giving Adrian holes to run through.”