The Minnesota Vikings could be heading into their seventh different combination for a starting offensive line if the latest casualties don’t heal quickly enough.
Through 11 games, the Vikings haven’t gone more than two games with the same starting offensive line, losing LT Matt Kalil for the season on Sept. 18, RT tackle Andre Smith for the season on Oct. 3, inserting LT Jake Long as a starter on Oct. 31 after he was acquired 20 days earlier, losing Alex Boone for the Nov. 6 game, losing Long for the season on Nov. 13 and inserting T.J. T.J. Clemmings at left tackle and Jeremiah Sirles at right tackle on Nov. 20. Four days later, Berger and Sirles were both lost for the game.
“Obviously it’s not ideal. You’d like to see the same five guys up there, just for their sake as far as communication,” QB Sam Bradford said. “Given that we lost a couple guys today, I thought the guys who came in and had to play did a great job.”
Nick Easton – acquired last year in a trade but a healthy scratch for the first two games of the season before the offensive line attrition started to get real – took Berger’s spot at center for the remainder of the game.
Sirles, who was also a healthy scratch in the season opener, was replaced by rookie Willie Beavers. Beavers was cut in the final roster trimming prior to the start of the season and re-signed to the practice squad for the first three games. Since being promoted to the 53-man roster, he was inactive for three games and didn’t play in the other four. Thursday was his first NFL action.
“It’s never easy to not get a ton of reps during the week and come in and have to play, but I thought they came in and they fought, they played well and they gave us a chance,” Bradford said. “Hopefully – I’m not exactly sure what it looks like for next week as far as some of the guys that were down – but hopefully we can get some of them back. If not, I thought our guys played well today and I’m sure with reps next week it will be even better.”
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When Boone suffered a concussion on Halloween, he was inactive for the next game, leaving Berger’s status in doubt for the Vikings’ game against the Dallas Cowboys next Thursday. If the Vikings had a 10-day gap and played their next game on a Sunday, Berger’s chances would be better.
“It’s something I don’t have words for, but you know, I’m proud of Nick, the way he stepped up,” Boone said of the injuries on the offensive line. “Willie came in today, two guys went down, next-man-up mentality, you know. Guys have proven that they can play in this league and that they want to play in this league and I hope that Joe and Sirles are OK, but now it’s on to Dallas. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’ve got to be ready for it.”
For now, however, the Vikings have felt the need to alter their offense to a short passing game in order to help keep Bradford healthy behind an offensive line that has some of its best players on injured reserve.
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“It always enters into a factor of trying to make sure you’re taking care of the guys that come in there as well,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of the play-calling with his offensive line decimated by injuries.
More than 85 percent of Bradford’s passes were targeted 2.5 or fewer yards down the field on Thursday, according to Pro Football Focus, and his average depth of target was 3.5 yards, the lowest of any NFL game this season and he entered the week with the lowest depth of target in the NFL.
That’s likely why the Lions felt they could gamble with a trap coverage on Bradford’s final pass of the game, an interception in which CB Darius Slay came off his coverage and peeled toward Adam Thielen for the interception on another short throw.
“I think their corner just made a really good play. I’d like to have it back. I wish I could have seen him fall off the outside route and come back in, but give them credit. It was a good play,” Bradford said.
“We’ve probably got to try to find a way to create some explosive plays. It’s hard when you are only picking up 5, 6, 7 (yards) at a time. There’s things that we do to try to figure out how we can create some more explosive plays. We’ll look at that, but I think that’s an area that we’ve got to be better at.”
Whether Bradford will have the time to let many more deep shots develop remains to be seen.
“You just look at who was the inactives today and make sure we have enough guys. It’s just really incredible the injuries that we’ve sustained from really day one, and honestly the way that we’ve been able to continue to compete against good football teams with the personnel, the inexperienced guys that we’re throwing in in tough spots, in tough situations,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “The guys are continuing to compete really hard, and a pat on the back is not what we’re looking for. But the reality is it’s there for the taking for us, we have to continue to try to do what we’re doing and make the plays at the end to win.”
2016 STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE COMBINATIONS
|LEFT TACKLE||LEFT GUARD||CENTER||RIGHT GUARD||RIGHT TACKLE|
|GAME 1||Kalil||Boone||Berger||Fusco||A. Smith|
|GAME 2||Kalil||Boone||Berger||Fusco||A. Smith|
|GAME 3||Clemmings||Boone||Berger||Fusco||A. Smith|
|GAME 4||Clemmings||Boone||Berger||Fusco||A. Smith|