Smith is now expected to be out for the rest of the season with triceps surgery scheduled for Tuesday. Fusco might be able to return in Week 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But the patchwork of the offensive line continues. Jeremiah Sirles has filled in admirably for Smith the last two games and could continue there. And Jake Long could be signed to give the Vikings an additional presence at offensive tackle, perhaps taking over for either Sirles at right tackle or a struggling T.J. Clemmings at left tackle.
“There were a lot of times during the game where he played well. And then he’ll have five just crazy things he does,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of Clemmings. “He sets too wide, he lunges with his hands, and he gets beat quickly. So we have to get that fixed.”
Clemmings struggled in both the run game and pass protection.
In the first quarter, a sack he surrendered to Antonio Smith nearly ended with a safety on third down. He gave up another sack to Whitney Mercilus when the speedy defensive end beat him around the edge.
“He lunged at him. He tried to punch, got off balance and got beat,” Zimmer said.
But Clemmings also struggled in the run game. He was at least partly responsible for a second-quarter Jerick McKinnon running play getting blown up for a 6-yard loss.
To be fair, Clemmings is being asked to play a left tackle position he hadn’t worked at before this year, and he had only three years of experience working on the offensive line (in both college and his first season with the Vikings) before this year.
Still, while grading offensive line play can be a dicey proposition, Pro Football Focus has Clemmings rated as the worst tackle with enough snaps to qualify in the NFL this year.
On the other side of the offensive line, Sirles has been performing well to date, minus a couple of penalties that he took full responsibility for after the game. PFF has given him a positive grade through two games and has him ranked as the 15th-best tackle in the league.
But the injuries on the offensive line have hit so deeply that Zac Kerin had to play 68 snaps at right guard for Fusco.
“We’re finding different guys to do different things to keep things going. That’s just part of it,” Zimmer said. “But you’ve got to give a lot of credit to our players. Zac Kerin came in there after six plays the other day and played well. Sirles went out to right tackle and played well this week. I think these guys, the thing that I like about this football team is they prepare, they study, they get ready to go play, and they take this stuff serious, so during the week when we get going these guys are all into trying to get better.”
While the offensive line has been decimated with injuries, to a lesser degree so has the tight end position. The Vikings had only two tight ends healthy enough to be active on Sunday and one of them, MyCole Pruitt, was also knocked out of the game with a knee injury in the second quarter.
For a team that likes to work with two and sometimes three tight ends, it was a personnel problem. Knowing they would be short-handed at the positon, they prepared Kerin to be a third tight end last week. However, when he had to fill in for Fusco and Pruitt was hurt, it meant Nick Easton had to fill that role, as the interior offensive lineman that is usually inactive ended up playing 13 snaps as a tight end on Sunday.
“I don’t think he got any work (at tight end last week),” Zimmer said. “He was getting work inside, but that was what Kerin was going to do.”
Zimmer said he expects tight ends Rhett Ellison and David Morgan to be healthy enough after the bye week, but the Vikings are still working out offensive tackles and likely to sign one as Smith heads to injured reserve.
Prior to Sunday’s game, Easton hadn’t been active for a game and Kerin had played only two snaps on offense. Against the Texans, Kerin played 66 snaps and Easton 13.
“They fight,” Zimmer said of his offensive line. “I think Tony (Sparano, offensive line coach) does a good job. Really all of our offensive coaches do a good job. It helps (QB Sam) Bradford. Bradford’s been getting the ball out quick. He’s done that all along since he’s been here. That helps.”
So will the bye week.