Throughout the 2016 season, when someone tries to find a weakness to the Minnesota Vikings, one stat that has jumped out has been the running game, which, in large part, puts the onus of the offensive line.
To do a deep dive on the O-line, one needs to take a look at the players who have taken the field and how has the line been impacted by those playing numbers.
The easiest way to understand the issues the Vikings have had along the offensive line is to look at the playtime numbers for each game. The numbers following the names represent the percentage of offensive snaps they took in a particular game.
Week 2 – LT Kalil (100), LG Boone (100), C Berger (100), RG Fusco (100), RT Smith (100).
Week 4 – LT Clemmings (100), LG Boone (100), C Berger (100), RG Fusco (100), RT Smith (8), RT Sirles (92).
Coming off a year in which the Vikings were the only team to start the same five offensive linemen (after, of course, losing starters John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt before the season), the Vikings were seeking stability. In 2015, the only player at the position he had been at the year before was Kalil, so, while there was consistency and continuity along the line, it was a lot of new faces in new places.
This year, things began to disintegrate following Week 2, when it was announced that Kalil was placed on injured reserve with a hip injury. It would be the first of many changes the Vikings had to make on the O-line.
To replace Kalil, the team moved Clemmings – a more natural right tackle in college and the pros – to the left side. But, the hits would keep on coming.
In Week 3 against the Panthers, Boone got injured in the second quarter and was replaced by Sirles – who had never played a game on offense for the Vikings and only two games in his professional career. The result was lining up a player making his first career start at left tackle on the opposite side of a guy getting his first playing time.
In Week 4 against the Giants, Boone returned, but, in the first quarter, Smith went down with an elbow injury. Sirles was forced to move from left guard to right tackle in a blink.
Last Sunday against the Texans, the injuries kicked into hyper-drive. Before the game started, the Vikings were already without tight ends Rhett Ellison and David Morgan and, in the first quarter, Fusco was sidelined with a concussion early on and one of the two tight ends on the active roster (MyCole Pruitt) was injured early on. Kerin had played just one play when Fusco had the leave the lineup in 2015, only to return on the next drive. Because Pruitt was down, Easton was used as an extra blocker in short-yardage situations and in formations designed to have two tight ends. During the week, Kerin worked there, but was already being used as an injury replacement at guard in the first quarter.
In all of 2015, the Vikings played the same five offensive linemen with the exception of a play here or a play there. In 2016, they have already played nine offensive linemen. Jake Long with be the 10th.
The fact that the line has held up as well as it has to help lead the Vikings to the only perfect record in the league is profound. But, at some point, the well is going to run dry. The Vikings need the players they have left to all stay healthy because, with each potential subsequent loss, the next man up is going to have less and less experience.
What the 2016 Vikings need is to have what the 2015 Vikings did – have the same five guys go from here on through, whoever they happen to be.