A year ago at this time, the walls were closing in around Matt Kalil. Analytics websites like Pro Football Focus were savaging him on a weekly basis. He was getting mercilessly trolled on social media by fans and he found himself isolating from the outside world because it seemed as though any time something was said about him, it had a negative connotation.
A year later, Kalil has been a steadying influence on an offensive line that is clearly in flux. Kalil is the only 2015 starter at the same position he was starting at the year before. Coming off surgery on both knees in the offseason, Kalil vowed to come back stronger than ever in 2015. Six games into the season, he’s feeling pretty good about where he’s at – a lot better than he did last year when he was playing through injuries.
“I felt like I’ve played well to this point,” Kalil said. “There are always things you want to get better at and need to work on to get even better. But as far the way things have been going so far, I’m feeling pretty good about it.”
Kalil has still shied away somewhat from social media and the harsh critics that eviscerated him 140 characters at a time last fall. He used to be a social media maven, but after last season has become once bitten, twice shy.
“You try not to pay attention to that stuff,” Kalil said. “I always felt like I had the confidence of my teammates and coaches, so I didn’t let that outside stuff get to me.”
Aside from physically feeling better than he has since 2012 when he made the Pro Bowl, he is feeling at home next to left guard Brandon Fusco. Kalil spent his first three years working next to Charlie Johnson, but when Johnson exited this offseason Fusco was moved from the right side of the offensive line to the left, where Kalil was waiting.
Cohesion between linemen and a line as a group is often a fluid work in progress that takes years to perfect. While Kalil admits he and Fusco are a work in progress as a tag team, the two of them are getting more comfortable and confident all the time.
“It takes a little while,” Kalil said. “Probably in the thick of training camp, that’s when you start getting after it with full pads on. From camp on, that’s when it started meshing and we’re playing well together.”
Kalil and Fusco are no strangers to the wars in the trenches in NFL games, but they’re going to see something for the first time Sunday that they’ve never seen, nor have any of the predecessors: the Chicago Bears running a 3-4 defense.
Watching game film on Chicago has been an eye opener for Kalil and Fusco, because they’ve never seen Chicago in a 3-4 base defense. In fact, nobody has, with the exception of the teams that have played them this season.
New head coach John Fox installed a 3-4 system that was a bad fit for Jared Allen, who was traded – “I think he’s happy with how things turned out,” Kalil joked about Allen’s trade to undefeated Carolina. The Bears have never used a 3-4 base defense, so as the Vikings watch film on Chicago it’s more like something they would expect from Green Bay and nothing they’ve seen with the personnel the Bears have.
“Me and Brandon were talking about it that it’s kind of weird seeing them in a 3-4 front, which we’re not used to seeing,” Kalil said. “We’re used to seeing an even front. There’s a lot of different guys. They’ve made some big changes. But they’re still an aggressive defense. They get after it and they’ve got some good guys. We’ve definitely got our hands full.”
For the last two games since the bye week, Vikings opponents have chosen to flood the line of scrimmage with run blitzes in order to force the Vikings to win without consistently gains from Adrian Peterson.
Whether the Bears are going to try that same strategy, which has resulted in losses for the Vikings’ two previous opponents, will have to wait to be answered until Sunday. But coming off a week in which Teddy Bridgewater lit up the Lions for 300 yards in their house – the same house in which they beat the Bears the week before – nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
“It’s kind of pick your poison,” Kalil said. “Last week, their biggest thing was to stop the run and Teddy had an ‘A’ day. We’ve got guys everywhere, whether they’re receivers or running backs, that are ready to step up.”
The confidence level that the Vikings are building is in direct relation to the success they’ve had moving the ball down the field offensively. Bridgewater, Peterson, Stefon Diggs are getting the headlines, but it’s players like Kalil who are doing the dirty work up front that is helping make the difference.
They’d like to get a few more touchdowns than field goals like they’ve have the last two games, but the work in progress is progressing nicely.
“I think as the weeks go on, it’s about not hurting ourselves with the things we do,” Kalil said. “I think it’s a boost of confidence knowing how we won the Detroit game and knowing there are a lot of things we can improve on. We can only get better from this point. Now it’s on to Chicago and looking to break that streak they have down there, getting another road win and keeping everything moving in the right direction.”