The Minnesota Vikings offensive line has gone through its fair set of troubles the past two season with pass protection. They allowed 51 sacks in 2014, Mike Zimmer’s first year as head coach, and 45 sacks during the 2015 regular season. There was an improvement there, but they were still in the top-10 for sacks allowed in the NFL.
Zimmer made it clear that things were going to change when he released offensive line coach Jeff Davidson following the 2015 season and signed Tony Sparano to take his place. Sparano is known as a tough-minded coach and many thought he would be the perfect guy to get the offensive line back in shape.
The front office also went out this offseason and signed offensive guard Alex Boone to a four-year, $26.8 million contract while also signing offensive tackle Andre Smith to a one-year, $3.5 million deal.
All the moves appear to be working, as the Vikings offensive line did not allow a single sack in their Week 1 victory over the Tennessee Titans.
“It’s just something we’ve been working on and emphasizing so much,” offensive guard Brandon Fusco said about their pass protection. “Just using the techniques that Tony’s (taught) us, and (assistant offensive line coach Hank Fraley), and I think it’s paying off. I think we have a good defense on our team, so we see a good defensive line and personnel everyday in practice, so it’s helped us a lot.”
Not only should Sunday’s victory be an encouraging sign for the Vikings line because they didn’t allow a sack, but also because the five players up front did a great job at communicating with one another. The Titans love to run a lot of stunts and twists with their front seven, which is something the Vikings have struggled with in the past, but their line was able to hold up and keep the pocket clean for their quarterback.
“We did really good with picking up their twists,” Smith said. “They didn’t have really good success with their twists in the game. We’re just guys helping each other out, being in the right place at the right time.”
But while the pass protection had a lot of success against the Titans, the running game really struggled. Adrian Peterson is considered by many to be one of the best running backs in the NFL and he was only able to gain 31 yards on 19 carries, while the other runners totaled 34 yards on nine carries.
The Vikings pride themselves on their strong running game, so only producing 65 yards on the ground is not something they are very happy about.
“We’re a run-first team and we’re a physical team We’ve always been that way, so we got to fix it,” Fusco said.
“As an offensive lineman I love running the ball. My mentality is be physical and get after it in the run game. When it’s not going as well you want it to it’s frustrating. But we just watched the film, we have some stuff we need to work on. It starts in practice and I think if we just clean it up there we’ll be fine.”
After watching film from the game, the offensive linemen said their struggles in the running game resulted in missing a guy here or there. A player would move the wrong way, or block the wrong player, things they need to clean up. But they are confident that they can get things rolling next Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
Another thing that made things difficult for them against the run was facing eight- or nine-man boxes with some regularity. That means that there are going to be more defenders at the point of attack than there are blockers, so finding open space for the running backs can be difficult.
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But loaded boxes are something that they have been seeing since Peterson entered the NFL in 2007 and it is something they are going to continue to see, so they aren’t using that as an excuse.
“That’s how it was a year ago, and when you’ve got Adrian in the backfield, you’re going to get those things,” Zimmer said about facing loaded boxes. “So you have to make sure that some of it is, you’re going to have an unblocked guy and you have to make the unblocked guy the guy that you want to be unblocked. That’s not different than anywhere in football. If you’re running to the right, the farthest guy on the left is going to be unblocked, and there were some other times that … I just don’t feel like you can (let the defense dictate to you). If that’s the case, you’re going to throw it every down. So I think there are times when you get out of things and times when you have to man up.”
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The offensive line should not shoulder all the blame for the struggles in the running game, though. There were also multiple times that one of the fullbacks or tight ends missed a block, or that the running back made the wrong read and didn’t hit the open hole.
A lot goes into the success of a team in any aspect and the Vikings will have to clean up some things in the running game if they want to pull of a win against the Packers. But they all believe they’ll be able to do just that.