OL: It's the Time Spent, Not the Players

The offensive linemen were all talking about needing to jell at the beginning of the year, but when they've had the most fluctuation of personnel over the last month is when they've been the most successful. See what numerous offensive linemen had to say about that topic this week.

Before the Vikings went into Miami on Nov. 19, their longest streak of having consecutive 100-yard games on the ground was two – against Detroit and against Seattle on Oct. 8 and Oct. 22, surrounding their bye week.

Now, however, the Vikings have put together four consecutive games in which their rush offense has gone over the century mark, including a 172-yard effort without feature back Chester Taylor last Sunday in Detroit.

The common perception is that the highly paid, highly touted offensive line is starting to come together.

"It sounds like a broken record because I say it all the time, but it takes time," said one of the highest paid offensive linemen, Steve Hutchinson. "You can't just throw five guys in there and expect them to play in this league. This isn't high school, this is the NFL, so the more experience we have, the more time, the more cohesiveness, the better you get. Now we're starting to kind of show that."

The reality is that, in some ways, the Vikings did "just throw five offensive linemen together" in the last month – or at least the starting lineup has been in flux.

The starters on the left side of the offensive line have stayed intact all season, but that Nov. 19 Dolphins game was the last time Artis Hicks and Marcus Johnson were starting together on the right side of the line. After that, it was Jason Whittle at guard and Mike Rosenthal at tackle for two games before Hicks returned from an ankle injury to supplant Whittle in the starting lineup last Sunday. Rookie Ryan Cook has also been garnering increasing time at right tackle.

"Me and Marcus, we had bonded, but this is a business. I can't control who's next to me," Hicks said. "I just have to try and do my job and bond with whoever's next to me. I get along with Mike and Marcus, and Cook also."

"It's a jelling process. We've been saying that all season, especially early on," Hicks added. "We started out kind of struggling in the run game, but it's getting a feel for the guy next to you and the running backs getting a feel how we're blocking things and where the cuts are going to be. Right around the midpoint of the season, we started to click, and you see that with a lot of teams in this league, especially when you've got guys coming together for the first time."

Hicks included the running backs – especially Chester Taylor – in that jelling process.

In the last four games, the Vikings have rushed for 114, 157, 192 and 172 yards, but center Matt Birk said the offensive line needs to keep looking ahead and not getting caught up in what it has accomplished recently.

"You can play great one week and get your (butt) kicked the next. Certainly as time goes on, you feel more comfortable," Birk said. "This whole jelling stuff – I don't know – we talk about jelling, but we've got Whittle, Rosenthal, Hicks, Cook. We've got eight offensive linemen playing the five spots. So I guess that ought to take the old jelling theory and flush it down the toilet. As time goes on, you feel more comfortable, but you've got to prepare every week."

Birk is right about the most consistent stretch of rushing offense coming when the right side of the line has seen the most turnover. Their hand was forced when Hicks and Johnson each suffered ankle injuries. While Johnson could have returned the lineup the last two games, his replacements were deemed to have done a better job, so Rosenthal continues to start with the rookie Cook taking about 40 percent of the snaps at right tackle last Sunday.

Hutchinson indicated that observers shouldn't read too much into the timing of the running game's success and the insertion of a different right side of the line.

"I just think that's a coincidence. Everybody on the offensive line – we have 10 guys in our offensive line room and everybody prepares like they're going to start that week. Everybody is prepared to get called to duty," he said.

Hicks wanted to play two games ago, against the Chicago Bears, but Whittle made his second straight start. While Whittle had three false start penalties, the line continued to block well in the running game. The coaches and trainers were the ones holding Hicks back, but Hicks said Thursday he still believes he could have played against Chicago.

"The heart of a player, you're always going to try to get back in. Sometimes they have to step in and help you save yourself," he said. "It's not the same sitting on the sideline watching. You try to do whatever you can to get back in there."

Whether it's a new combination on the right side of the line or just that all of the linemen are finally getting comfortable with the blocking schemes and each other, there are plenty of theories as to why the improved run blocking now.

Before saying it is simply a matter of execution, Birk joked that the reason was top secret and reporters didn't have the proper clearance to gain that knowledge.

Well, OK, there is a little more to it.

Birk also said the offensive line mixed in more man blocking with its usual load of zone blocking against Chicago.

"Once you kind of get the base playbook down, I guess that's like 90 percent of it. (Now) it's just little tweaks here and there," Birk said. "In the beginning you're trying to kind of take in the big picture. Now it's just kind of smaller details."

Said Hicks: "Regardless of who's in there, we've all been together and we're all watching film together, learning the same technique. We're all doing the same things at this time of year – we're all blocking a guy the same way, we're all taking the same footsteps. It really doesn't necessarily matter who's in there, it's more so the technique that we've learned and the feel that we've got for each other."

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