Another week for the Minnesota Vikings, another line of questions along the offensive line.
Will former first overall pick Jake Long be on the bench Sunday? Will he be starting? Will be playing left tackle or right tackle? If he starts, does that mean T.J. Clemmings moves back to the right side? Does Jeremiah Sirles remain in the starting lineup?
That may seem like a lot of questions (it is), but it’s nothing like the dozens of questions that have been following the Vikings’ offensive line since the end of last season.
The questions this week would seem to be these: How quickly can Long get up to speed and does the former Pro Bowler still have what it takes to play at a high level?
For his part, Long is itching to go after being without a team since the end of last season and wondering if the call to duty was ever going to come.
“I’m really excited about getting out there and doing some hitting.” Long said. “The physical side is getting back into it and knocking the rust off. Luckily, we had a bye week, so I get to get out there and run around a little bit. I feel great so far. Whenever my number is called I’m going to be ready to go.”
Long is just the latest piece to an offensive line that has been in flux almost every week since the start of the season.
Despite the revolving door of personnel, the Vikings have maintained under dire circumstances.
“I think we’ve done a nice job,” Sirles said. “Zac came in the last game and played really well and had nice game. Nick came in and had a nice game, too. We’re just constantly preaching ‘next man up.’ Everyone prepares like they’re going to be a starter and I think that has shown since guys have gotten thrown in there.”
Part of the ability for the Vikings to adapt and adjust when injuries have struck has been the attitude brought by O-line coach Tony Sparano.
Sparano is a no-nonsense coach who was the head coach in Miami when both Long and Joe Berger were with the Dolphins.
Sparano came to the Vikings and came with no predeterminations of the players on the roster. He treated them all like they were starters until someone emerged at each position. The result has been that when players are forced into action, they don’t miss a beat because they’ve been rotated in and out of practices since before training camp.
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“We’ve got a good room – a great group of young guys that want to get in there, want to get on the field and when they’ve got in there, they’ve played well,” Berger said. “It’s always nice to play next to the same guys, but, at the same time, that’s kind of what we’ve been doing – rolling guys in and out. We’ve been doing that since the beginning of camp. You kind of get comfortable playing with whoever is next to you.”
The Sparano-Berger connection has been invaluable for Long. He has found that their history together has helped grease the wheels for the new guy in the Vikings’ offensive line room.
“They’ve been great,” Long said. “Joe knows the offense inside and out. Any questions I’ve had, he’s been able to answer. With Coach Sparano, it’s like I never left. He’s a great coach. I loved playing for Miami and I enjoy being back with him now.”
One of Long’s biggest hurdles will be getting up to game speed, but the Vikings aren’t expected to baby him along. Wednesday was his first day that he was in pads in practice and the Vikings are going to put him through his paces to see if he is ready to step in and play a role on the offensive line.
They aren’t going to take it easy on him and Long doesn’t want them to. He figures if he can handle Everson Griffen, Brian Robison and Danielle Hunter in practice, there isn’t much he can’t handle on game days.
“When you can go up against some of the best pass rushers and D-linemen every single day in practice, that makes you better – as a line and as an individual,” Long said. “It’s a good battle, so when you go up against great players from the opposite team, you can handle it.”
Few teams have ever got off to a 5-0 start with the sort of ravaging injuries the Vikings have faced in 2016. But they are picking themselves up every week with the belief that the next man up can get the job done.
The rest of the NFL isn’t going to wait for the Vikings O-line to get healthy and, even though they have struggled to run the ball, they’re not using injuries as a crutch to fall back on when they don’t shine.
“We’re not making excuses for ourselves,” Sirles said. “We’re all here to do a job and we’re all here to do a job well. We’re not going let other people make excuses for us. We’re just going to keep working and doing what we can for this team.”