Minnesota Vikings: State of the Offensive Line

Michael VichaelContributor IDecember 17, 2009

One of the biggest cliches in football is that defense wins championships. But the way I look at it, you win in the trenches (both sides of the ball) and in the turnover game.
The Vikings' defensive line is star-studded, no question. What team wouldn't want to have Jared Allen and the Williams Wall? On the other hand, the team's OL has received some pretty harsh reviews this season, including from me.
Here's why my stance on the OL has changed of late.

Passing Game
My biggest worry, early on, was the porous pass protection. Every QB needs time to throw the ball. But a 40-year-old QB can least afford to get hit.
Brett Favre is a warrior who's played more consecutive games than any other position player in history, but the wear-and-tear during the long season has drastically reduced his effectiveness at the end of three of the last four years. 
In the preseason, Favre got whacked a lot, and hard. One particularly vicious hit was when Chiefs LB Corey Mays shot cleanly through the strong side A gap between new C John Sullivan and RG Anthony Herrera, and drilled Favre at full speed as the ball was being released.
Might that have been the hit that prompted Favre to mention his sore ribs a few days later?
At that time, Favre himself suggested he was still getting into the flow of things and was holding onto the ball too long. But a month later, the trend continued. After two regular season games, Favre had been sacked once every seven times he'd dropped back to pass.
That's three times his career rate, which was one sack every 21 drops before this season. And more than double his worst sack years with the Packers, in which he was sacked once around every 15 drops.
But to the OL's credit, the sacks have been under control since then: One sack every 20 drops. The OL now has the 12th lowest sack rate in the NFL, not bad considering where they were headed after the first two games.
Another factor is that with Favre in the game, he is allowed to survey the whole field when looking for secondary or later options. In previous years, Childress's QBs were often limited to half the field, literally. Using the whole field might mean holding onto the ball an extra quarter or half-second, something the OL has had to get accustomed to this year.
Since Favre turned 37-years-old, the only year in which he has finished strong was in 2007. Not coincidentally, his protection that year was excellent: One sack every 37 drops.
Favre's protection this year won't equal 2007's. But it's improved greatly after a very rough start.

Running Game
One concern many OL critics (including myself) bring up is the recent failure of "All Day" Peterson to break free as often as he seemed to do it in the past. There seem to be a lot of no and negative gain runs by him this year.
Much of that is true. This year AD has cracked four yards per carry in only six of 13 games. Last year it was 14 of 16 games. In his rookie year it was eight of 14 games.
His profile of 100+ yard games has been similar: Only three so far this year, compared to 10 and six the previous two years.
But AD's value to the team is more than just his rushing numbers.
So far this year the Vikings are fifth in the NFL in time of possession. The last two years, the team was 11th and 21st, respectively, despite having the most talented RB in universe.
Undoubtedly much of that improvement has to do with Favre. In my mind, it's not about Favre's numbers. It's about being able to fully implement the offensive game plan.
I'm not very concerned about AD's rushing stats, because the commitment to the running game is important from the first quarter on, even if the defense is able to contain AD for the most part.
To be a ball control team and keep your defense fresh, you have to run. To eat time off the clock when you are ahead, you have to run. To be physical, to soften up the defense throughout the game so that you can run downhill in the fourth quarter, you have to run.
And maybe most importantly, to set up the pass, you have to run.
The great thing about having AD is that you force defenses to overreact. The great thing about having Favre is that he can recognize and exploit that overreaction.
To force that overreaction, you must have AD playing a lot, and carrying a lot. Even if the yards-per-carry number is a little low.
So while AD's running numbers may not look as sexy as they did last year, and the number of AD highlights have gone down, continuing to feed him the ball early and often is essential toward achieving the total game plan. In essence, much of Favre's success is due to the yeoman's efforts of AD and his OL in the running game.
Also, while AD's rushing numbers are down from last year, his total yards from scrimmage is almost exactly the same: 117 yards per game this year, compared to 118 last year. Someone's blocking for him on those screens.
Last, a trend that reflects well on the OL in the running game is Chester Taylor's improvement as the season's progressed. Early on, Taylor was struggling to surpass two yards per carry. But in the last four games, he's run for a healthy 152 yards on 25 carries, 6 yards per rush.
At the very minimum, this shows that the OL is now able to run against the normal seven-man fronts that the team faces whenever AD's not in the game.
In conclusion, I believe the Vikings OL is underrated to a large degree because the sack and running game numbers alone don't really reflect the unit's true value to the team.
It's true; much of the criticism this year has been warranted. In particular, the aforementioned strong side A gap can be exploited by a smart defensive coordinator.
But this OL is coalescing. As a result, Brad Childress can better execute his game plan.  Things really could be coming together nicely, just when the team needs it most.