At the beginning of the 2015 season, there was a lot of concern how the Minnesota Vikings offensive line would hold up without veteran starters John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt. The line was a hodgepodge of new players at new positions and there were legitimate worries that all the work that had been put into improving the Vikings offense would be for naught if the line couldn’t hold up.
With a 6-2 record, those worries would appear to have quieted down, as the offensive line has come together as a unit and not only held its own, but helped make Adrian Peterson the leading rushing in the league.
Nobody has been a bigger part of that cohesion than guard Mike Harris. A fill-in at tackle last season when Loadholt went down to injury, this season Harris was asked to move inside to guard, a position he had little experience with and would come with a learning curve.
At the midway point of the season, the offensive line has come together as a cohesive group and is pushing to become a strength of the Vikings offense, not a liability.
Last week against St. Louis, one of the primary storylines was the battle of the running backs, with the veteran Peterson being compared with the young upstart Todd Gurley. Peterson admitted after the game that it meant a lot to him to show Gurley and the rest of the world that he’s still the best running back in the NFL. His offensive line felt some of that same pressure to give A.P. the opportunities he needed to make the plays that would shoot down the conversation of him being replaced as the elite running back of the NFL.
“We knew Adrian had a lot to prove and we went out and played excellent,” Harris said. “It was awesome watching him run through our blocks. On the touchdown he got in the first quarter, I got a good block for him. I was really excited.”
Harris believes the line has come into its own because, while there are new players in the lineup, they’re getting put through their paces. That is especially true as the Vikings continue to mix and match opponents that play a 4-3 or 3-4 defense. One week it will be a 4-3. The next week it will be a 3-4. The Vikings have needed to become versed not only in what teams operate out of as a base defense, but how theirs are unique to the others.
With Oakland on the horizon Sunday, it’s back to dealing with a 3-4 scheme and Harris believes the constant switching back and forth in protection schemes has made the O-line better for the added workload from week to week.
“With 3-4 defenses, there’s a lot more looking at linebacker pressures and being aware of the blitz packages they run,” Harris said. “(Oakland will) run a 3-4, but they have multiple fronts as well. Our coaches will do a good job of preparing us. We’ve been watching a lot of film, identifying what they do. If you have a good idea of what they do, it makes it easier to stop them.”
One of the new looks for Harris is that he’s being asked to do a lot more as he has familiarized himself with his new position. When he was named starting right guard during the preseason, he wasn’t asked to do much more than simply take on the man in front of him. Now he’s being asked to play like he’s been a guard since high school.
Harris is doing a lot more pulling on run plays to the edge these days. That was on display when he sprung Peterson for a touchdown run early in Sunday’s win against the Rams. It’s something he was hoping the coaching staff would install for him and he’s enjoying being asked to use his athleticism more.
“It’s about time,” Harris said. “The coaches are seeing something in me. At the beginning of the season, they really didn’t have me pulling because I was new to it. It’s fun. I’ve just got to keep on getting better at it. There are some teams that take on pulls pretty well. They’ll try to trap my legs down, so I just need to be prepared when that played is called to go out and execute.”
Harris has seen the improvement along the offensive line during the weeks of preparation and, while it took a while, he’s feeling much more natural at the guard spot than he felt earlier in the season. He remains a work in progress, but he likes the idea of being able to go on the offensive out in space and take on the defenders he typically is digging in his feet to stop.
“I’m very comfortable, but there’s a lot of room for improvement,” Harris said. “I’m just throwing my big body around. Nobody wants to get hit by a 325-pound guy. I’ll probably get some more of those this week. It’s awesome.”
For all the concerns and consternation that surrounded the loss of Sullivan and Loadholt in the preseason, the Vikings offensive line has more than just held its own. Peterson is leading the NFL in rushing and much of the credit belongs to the big boys in front of him that are opening running lanes for him.
Peterson has set his sights on another rushing title and Harris and his linemates will need to be a big part of that. It’s a challenge they’re looking forward to because there are rewards to come to offensive linemen who open holes for a rushing champ.
“You talking about gifts?” Harris said. “I’ve heard that Adrian has done that. Fusco said he bought them snowmobiles when he had his big year (in 2012). That would be cool, but there’s still a lot of football left to be played. We can’t be getting ahead of ourselves. We’ve been taking this season one opponent at a time and not getting ahead of ourselves. It’s worked to this point. I don’t see why we should change up anything now, so all of our focus is just on beating Oakland and keeping this win streak going.”