Offensive line key to Minnesota Vikings matchup with Lions

For the Minnesota Vikings to get their offense rolling against the Lions, it will start with the offensive line.

Although the Minnesota Vikings offensive line was shaky during Monday night’s loss, much-maligned left tackle Matt Kalil was pleased with his performance.

“I thought I played great, but at the same time it’s kind of bitter sweet because I care more about winning,” Kalil said. “Obviously you still want to play well. But the most important thing is winning games so I can’t be completely happy. It’s a good start for the season, but I want to do well as a whole on offense.”

Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater took five sacks, but Kalil wasn’t responsible for any of them, according to Pro Football Focus, the analytical web site that didn’t view Kalil favorably last year but had him ranked as the 17th-best tackle on kickoff weekend this year.

Kalil will need another strong performance Sunday against the Detroit Lions, who gave the Vikings offensive line fits last year. In their first meeting with the Lions in 2014, Detroit sacked Bridgewater eight times, with defensive end Ezekiel Ansah – the matchup going against Kalil – accounting for 2½ of those. In their second meeting, the Lions had four sacks and Kalil shut out Ansah.

“He’s a great player. I always look forward to playing against him,” Kalil said. “I ended the season well against him last year and kind of want to carry that momentum into this year and keep playing well against him. I’ve always got my hands full against him.”

Ansah finished the season with 7½ sacks, but he had one Sunday against the San Diego Chargers. His matchup with Kalil will be one of the important battles to watch as the Vikings try to give Mike Zimmer his first win against Detroit after dropping both games to them last year.

“I guess you want to try new things and see what he does this year, see anything he changed up and plan based off of that,” Kalil said of the burgeoning battle between the offensive tackle and defensive end.

While Kalil struggled with knee problems last year and had surgery to repair them in the offseason, the protection issues are a focus for the entire offense. The Vikings are without starting center John Sullivan for at least the first eight games after he had back surgery, and without right tackle Phil Loadholt for the entire season after he tore his Achilles tendon in the preseason.

The 12 combined sacks the Vikings surrendered to the Lions’ second-ranked defense last year will be front and center as they prepare to face them for the first time this year.

“That’s all the way back to last year. We’re a completely different team than last year. It’s a division game, so it’s a big game. This game means a lot. It’s good to win division games early,” Kalil said.

“If you kind of dwindle on that stuff from last year, it’s going to be a negative attitude. I think our thoughts are that we’re a lot better, even though we didn’t show it on Monday. We definitely are improved. I guess we can use that as motivation to not let that happen again.”

The Lions no longer have Ndamukong Suh wreaking havoc in the middle of the defensive line, and Vikings have more and better weapons at the skill positions this year. But before they can get to those weapons, it will be incumbent on the offensive line to open holes against last year’s top-ranked run defense and protect Bridgewater so he can get to the receiving weapons in the passing game.

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