Sometimes improvements are registered in baby steps and, when they happen, even the smallest of things can be seen as an achievement.
The Minnesota Vikings have been hit with injuries along the offensive line to as great an extent in 2016 as they have in any season in recent memory. A year removed from being the only team in the NFL to start the same five offensive linemen each week of the season, the Vikings have been a mess up front, as every player except center Joe Berger has missed time due to injuries.
By Alex Boone’s count, the Vikings have had nine or 10 different line combination in the 10 games they’ve played. But, the newest incarnation, which had T.J. Clemmings at left tackle and Jeremiah Sirles at right tackle, has Boone celebrating that they’re heading into Detroit with the same group that played last week – which, for this team, is an achievement.
“This is two weeks in a row!” Boone said with a smile. “Finally! We’ve got the same offensive line. It’s good and I think they both did a phenomenal job in that game. There’s always stuff we want to clean up as an offensive line, but to step in the way they did was phenomenal for us.”
Sirles has been bounced around the line as an emergency fill-in at right tackle, left tackle and both guard spots. However, this time, he is expected to be inserted at right tackle and stay there.
Although he realizes his value is in his versatility to play multiple positions, he feels he can improve the most as a player in the short-term and long-term by staying at the position he’s at and working to focus in on his assignments as a right tackle and not as a swingman jumping from one spot to another.
Sirles thought he played well in his new home position on the right side, but is mindful that he needs to keep working to hold down the job long-term.
“I played decent, but I’ve got to play better,” Sirles said. “I’m settling back in at right tackle, so I’m just going to go out there and try to improve every week.”
Sirles admits the primary reason he remains on the Vikings roster is that he can wear a lot of hats and has the ability to switch spots. But the opportunity to be a starter at one spot and quit rotating positions is welcomed, too.
“It will help (staying at right tackle) to just continue to improve and correct bad habits and improve good habits,” Sirles said.
The timing couldn’t be better for the Vikings to be forced into a short week of preparation for the Detroit Lions. With all the shuffling that has been on the offensive line, having the same unit together is an achievement the Vikings haven’t seen much this season.
With all they have to prepare for Thursday, knowing that the same guy who lined up next to them last week will be the same guy this week is something they embrace. They don’t need to add to their stress plate in the tight confines of preparation for a nationally televised game on Thanksgiving Day on a short week.
“Sometimes it gets really annoying, but, at the same time, games like this make it fun,” Boone said. “You get up and go. The hardest part is trying to get all the plays down and trying to understand their defense. It is a nice thing that we played them so recently, but, at the same time, you wonder what are they going to do differently? Are they going to start trying to do something crazy and you don’t have a lot of time to prepare for it? It’s just going to be one of those where we just go out, stick to who we are and focus.”
The one thing that can be beneficial for the Vikings is that they will be playing the Lions 18 days apart.
Is there an advantage to meeting so soon after their first matchup of the season when there is so little time to prepare?
“Yes and no,” Boone said. “They could come out and do something completely different. We’ll see right away what they’re doing. But, for the most part, football is football. It’s not going to change. It’s going to come down to who hits who longer and harder and faster. This is going to be a fun game.”
For Sirles getting comfortable in one spot, the short week is a Godsend. The week of preparation and film study is simplified when you’ve already gone through the process of watching tape against an opponent you played so recently.
“I think it helps,” Sirles said. “It’s still fresh in your mind a little bit, so you get a chance to look at our game and see what we did against them – what worked well, what didn’t and what we need to improve on.”
As the Vikings take the field on offense Thursday, they will be doing so with something that has been far too rare this season – the same five guys lining up in front of Sam Bradford looking to finally get some continuity. It’s been a long time in coming, but it’s something the O-linemen have been waiting for all season.
While the line configuration wasn’t what offensive line coach Tony Sparano had in mind when the season began – or in Week 3 or Week 6 or even now – having the same five players working as a unit can only make the group improve as they attempt to establish the continuity that has been so sorely lacking all season.
“Barring injury, let’s hope that we can all settle in and try to ride this group that we have right now for the rest of the season,” Sirles said. “We all have continuity in the room, but I think it does help the offensive line as a group to just have five guys up there and just be able to go out there and play.”