Of all the good things surrounding the start of the 2016 season for the Minnesota Vikings, the running game hasn’t been one of them. Prior to his injury, Adrian Peterson was consistently bottled up and, even now, the Vikings have the worst rush offense in the NFL.
But, in the Monday night game against the Giants, Vikings running backs gained 97 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns. The offensive line appeared to be finding its way despite the continued turnover due to injuries that has made the lineup forcibly shuffled several times already this season.
Guard Brandon Fusco, one of only two linemen to play in every snap in all four games (along with center Joe Berger), believes the Vikings may have turned a corner.
“It was good,” Fusco said of Monday’s performance. “It gave us a little confidence moving forward. I think we can build off that. I don’t think we’re where we want to be at yet, but it’s a step forward.”
The Vikings O-line has been a testament to resiliency. Back in the early summer, it was thought that the team might have the most offensive line depth it has had in years. But the numbers started thinning quickly.
Phil Loadholt announced his retirement. The team parted ways with veteran John Sullivan in the preseason. Matt Kalil was lost for what is likely the whole year with a hip injury. Alex Boone missed the majority of the Carolina game. Andre Smith has been sidelined with an elbow injury.
Through it all, the Vikings line has been typified by replacing players and not missing a beat, a testament to how resilient the line has been through hard times.
“I think we have a good group of guys that work hard,” Fusco said. “They know the plays. They’re very knowledgeable of the game. Whoever is in there, I think we don’t miss a beat and we’re confident with them. We’re close on and off the field. It makes our job easier when we’re like that.”
The numbers said that Monday’s win over New York was the best performance that the O-line put in this season, both in opening running lanes for the backs and protecting Sam Bradford from a fierce Giants pass rush.
For Fusco personally, he felt it was his best game of the season as well and something to build upon as the Vikings hit the second quarter of their season.
“I think so,” Fusco said. “It’s hard to say. I try from week in and week out to have my best game. It was a big game for me. I feel like I can build off that and keep playing the way I am.”
One of the pleasant surprises has been the play of super-sub Jeremiah Sirles. Over the last two weeks, he played almost a full game at left guard against the Panthers and right tackle against the Giants.
In the last game, he lined up next to Fusco and he was able to give an accurate assessment of his level play – from which he came away duly impressed.
“He did great,” Fusco said. “I was really proud how he handled himself against a great player in (Jason) Pierre-Paul. I’m happy for him. He’s a hard worker and I expected nothing else from him.”
While the personnel has changed much more often than anyone would prefer, the one constant the Vikings have had this season has been the coaching of new offensive line coach Tony Sparano.
A legitimate tough guy who doesn’t mince words with players, Sparano has been challenging his linemen since the start of training camp to be the best players they can be. He doesn’t hand out compliments easily, but the results are showing on the field in terms of leverage and technique and, given all the injuries and adversity the line has endured through the season, Sparano has been a constant.
“He’s hard-nosed,” Fusco said. “He demands a lot of you. He’s very detail oriented, but at the same time he’s a technician. He wants you to use good technique and feed off of everybody. I think everybody has a learned a lot, even the veteran guys. We’ve all learned a lot. He’s taught us a lot about the game of football and what to look for when you’re watching film.”
There is a lot of promise for the 2016 Vikings, who seem in many ways to be taking on the attitude that head coach Mike Zimmer started instilling in the team in 2014 when he arrived as the new Vikings head coach.
Whether the Vikings can live up to the lofty goals being set internally at Winter Park will be determined over the next four months. But one thing to which Fusco and his teammates can attest, they’re all better players for having worked with Zimmer and the best is yet to come as they attempt to fulfill the promise he sees in them.
“I think this whole team is rubbing off on being a physical, smart, disciplined team,” Fusco said. “That’s what Coach Zim has been preaching to us and I think everyone is buying into it. This team is so tough and it’s hard to beat us when we play our best.”