That O-Line Work Ethic

Depsite a rash of injuries and the much-publicized free-agent defections on the offensive line, the current trenchmen aren't about to let up, even if the playoffs are fading in front of them.

Ask any traditionalist how important it is to have offensive linemen on the squad who have played together at their regular positions for several seasons in order for the team's offense to be consistent and the answer will usually come back that it is absolutely essential.

However, others are more regularly citing the yearly movement from one team to another by free agents and the increasing number of injuries as a couple of reasons why we may be witnessing a new order affecting those who toil among the anonymous locations in the trenches. One such individual is veteran Vikings guard Corbin Lacina.

Lacina, a St. Paul native, began his pro career as a sixth-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills in 1993 following an All-American career at Division II Augustana College in South Dakota. After a taxi-squad season as a rookie, he played for Buffalo for the next five years before signing with Carolina for the 1998 season.

Lacina became a member of the Vikings in June of 1999, just before he would become part of the Vikings' patchwork offensive line made up from the remains following the loss of free agents Todd Steussie, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy. Their free-agent departures, coupled with the loss of right tackle Korey Stringer, and complicated further by an uncommon rash of injuries among the linemen, have made it nearly impossible to start any of this year's games with the same lineup that took the field at the start of the previous game.

In spite of the wounded condition of the offensive line, the Vikings' fourth-quarter comeback from 21-3 to 21-16 against Pittburgh's top-ranked defense with backup quarterback Todd Bouman at the helm came within a whisker of becoming one of the all-time events in Vikings lore.

But Lacina, who shared duty at left guard while playing on a gimpy leg, said none of the Minnesota players were about to take bows for the near-miracle finish. "It's part of the job," he said. "I've been around long enough to have experienced the same situation before. In Carolina, for instance, I was the only healthy lineman left through the 10th game of the season when we lost everybody at one time or another.

"It's part of the National Football League, and there are a lot of teams going through it. You hope you can avoid it, but when injuries come up guys just have to step in and do well."

Lacina and the other members of the offensive line didn't want to listen to talk about a "moral victory" at Pittsburgh. Their unanimous response to questions was that it wasn't a "W" and that's all that really mattered. However, Lacina said, "It does show the character of the guys we have. Nothing was ever given to any of us, if you're talking about the offensive line. We're a bunch of guys who've had to earn everything we've gotten, and that's the kind of effort you're going to get no matter who you put in.

"We expect to win every week and we expect to play hard until the whistle every week. The finishing and the playing hard is what we do naturally. But it's still very disappointing to lose."

The loss to Pittsburgh was seen by most as the death knell for the Vikings' hopes of reaching the playoffs this year. But Lacina, as well as his linemate and fellow Minnesota business partner, center Matt Birk, were not quite ready to see it that way.

Said Birk: "We just want to play our best football now, whether we make the playoffs or not. On Sunday after the game you want to be able to shake the other guy's hand and have him know that on that day you were better than he was. A great amount of satisfaction comes from that."

But with a decisively losing record and only five games left on the schedule, was Birk being realistic? "Crazy things happen," he insisted. "With this team playing hard, hopefully what we did (against Pittsburgh) we can build on and play our best football down the stretch."

Running reps
The Vikings' offensive line does deserve the accolades it received for preventing any sacks by the Steelers, whose defense is designed specifically to produce numerous opportunities to sack opposing quarterbacks. So much for effective pass blocking. The Vikings' running game, however, is another mater. It remains among the poorest in the league, and coach Dennis Green lays part of the blame on the injuries, particularly those suffered by the linemen.

"I think the problem with our running game is that we've had so many different players. It's very difficult to coordinate run blocking with guys who are not as familiar with each other as they would like to be," he said. At the same time, he reckoned that tailback Michael Bennett will improve as he gets more opportunities to carry the ball.

"In eleven games, Michael has missed three," Green pointed out. He's only carried the ball probably only 10 or 11 carries a game. So I think if we would give him the ball (more) he can make some big plays." VU

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