The Vikings’ 17-3 loss to Detroit on Sunday was the tipping point for the offensive line, the most disappointing unit in Minnesota six games into the season. Beyond simply holding back the offense as a whole, its poor play is having a detrimental impact on rookies Teddy Bridgewater and Jerick McKinnon.
Coming into the 2014 season, the Vikings' offensive line figured to be one of the team’s strongest, most reliable units. While there was much turnover in terms of personnel and coaching, all five offensive linemen returned to the starting lineup at the season's opening. Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson was also retained, this being his fourth season in the role.
The unit was effective in 2013 too. Continuity didn’t occur for continuity’s sake.
Per Football Outsiders, the 2013 offensive line finished No. 10 in the league in adjusted line yards, a statistic that attempts to credit yardage earned by the offensive line separate from those earned by running backs. Minnesota’s line did, however, finish No. 23 in the site’s measure of adjusted sack rate. The carousel of mediocre quarterbacks certainly did the unit no favors in that regard.
Pro Football Focus premium statistics (subscription required) graded out Minnesota’s offense at No. 7 in the league in pass blocking in 2013 and No. 3 in run blocking. These grades focus on assigning numerical grades to actual game tape. So in multiple different measures, the Vikings' offensive line was at least effective if not the offense's strength in 2013.
With continuity and more experience along the line, expectations were surely raised for the 2014 unit. It certainly has not lived up to them.
An injury to right guard Brandon Fusco in the third week of the season certainly delivered a blow to the line. He suffered a torn pectoral muscle, as reported by Ben Goessling of ESPN.com, which will sideline him for the remainder of the season. As one of the offense’s most reliable players, filling his shoes has proven difficult.
That doesn’t excuse the abject failure of the offensive line this season. All measures previously listed from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus are down after six games in 2014.
|2014 vs. 2013: Vikings Offensive Line League Rankings|
|Adj. line yards||10||24|
|Adj. sack rate||23||32|
|Pass block grade||7||28|
|Run block grade||3||18|
|Sources: Football Outsiders, Pro Football Focus premium statistics|
A dead last ranking in sack rate is startling at the very least. The sheer number of sacks allowed at this point in the season, 23, is eye-opening.
*Sack numbers aggregated from Football Outsiders.
The sack problem reached its high point with the Vikings giving up eight to the Lions on Sunday.
Detroit’s exploits were hardly the result of exotic blitzing or schematic trickery. The defense simply teed off on an overwhelmed offensive line, often bringing the heat without extra rushers. Goessling shared a telling statistic on twitter, via ESPN Stats and Info (via Goessling):
The Lions rushed four on five of their eight sacks, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. That's got to be concerning for the Vikings.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) October 12, 2014
Five sacks without the aid of a blitz is inexcusable for any offensive line, much less one with as much experience as Minnesota’s. The stat points to the inability of blockers to hold up in one-on-one situations. On Sunday, tackles Matt Kalil and Phil Loadholt were torn apart on the outside, even when Detroit did little to disguise intentions or overwhelm either side with blitzes.
Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune shares a stat that quantifies this notion, per Pro Football Focus premium statistics:
The quarterback feeling pressure on more than half of his dropbacks is absurd. While a few of those fall on the shoulders of the rookie holding the ball too long in the pocket, the offensive line carries most of the burden.
Because of injury and some extracurricular activities, the offense is now relying on two rookies in important positions. Bridgewater and McKinnon are the best options right now for the Vikings at quarterback and running back, respectively. Their inexperience with the speed of NFL defenses is exacerbated greatly by the offensive line’s incompetence. Quite predictably, the offense is struggling as a result.
Continued inadequacy from the line will hinder Bridgewater and McKinnon’s early development too. Let’s dig into the tape and pinpoint how these blocking issues are asking too much of the two rookies.
The first example comes from the second quarter against Detroit, a 3rd-and-10 play in which Bridgewater is hauled down for a sack.
As Bridgewater begins to stride forward and wind up his throw, Lions end Jason Jones bullies Loadholt right into his lap. With pressure in his face, Bridgewater is unable to pull the trigger. Ndamukong Suh also works his way into the quarterback’s sightline, dissuading a throw.
Keep in mind the quarterback’s readiness to release the ball as we pan out to the coverage view.
Bridgewater found exactly what he needed. Greg Jennings eluded man coverage and was running into a pocket of space beyond the sticks.
Bridgewater knew it too. If pressure doesn’t find its way into his path so quickly, he likely delivers a strike down the field for a crucial first-down conversion. Instead, Jones slid off Loadholt’s block and finished the play with a sack.
The next example follows a similar story but ends in less pain.
This time the Lions bring five rushers on a zone blitz. Left guard Charlie Johnson trips over the foot of Kalil, falling flat on his back. Stunting end George Johnson stumbles but does so right into the feet of Bridgewater.
Again, let’s pan out to see how routes developed down the field.
Without being able to step into the throw as Johnson snapped at his ankles, Bridgewater was forced to check it down to the tight end crossing the field. Both Cordarrelle Patterson on the far side and Jennings over the middle are breaking away from coverage.
Interior pressure keeps Bridgewater from being able to let the routes develop, and it then keeps him from delivering down the field.
The frequency with which pressure is getting to the rookie could stunt his growth as a quarterback too, for a couple of different reasons.
First, Bridgewater could develop bad habits. He could begin to make incorrect assumptions about coverage in order to release sooner, leading to more dangerous throws that defenders can get a beat on. He may begin to abandon plays too soon, looking to take off instead.
Second, Norv Turner will doctor the offense to try and maximize its output with such a porous offensive line. That could mean trying to get the rookie out of the pocket more often, cutting the field in half to simplify reads or a variety of other limiting techniques. These should sound familiar to Vikings fans. Bill Musgrave was forced to do this with Christian Ponder for reasons beyond inept pass blocking.
Young quarterbacks don’t learn properly when coordinators go this route to lessen negative plays and keep the offense afloat.
Moving on to the running game, we can see how the offensive line’s mistakes can hamper McKinnon and the offense’s early-down success. This first-and-10 play exhibits some of the problems that are occurring.
This is a straight lead for McKinnon behind a fullback. For run-blockers, that means gaining position on defenders and utilizing a drive block to create a push away from the designated lane.
No part of what Kalil or Vladimir Ducasse are doing on this play resembles a proper drive block. Notice how deep each is pushed into the backfield. That type of disruption usually defeats run plays before they begin.
Let’s spin the play around and take a peek at what McKinnon sees as he approaches the hole or lack thereof.
The design calls for McKinnon to follow Jerome Felton through the hole and make the appropriate cut after. Because two blockers have been forklifted into the hole, he is forced to cut outside immediately. He makes the correct decision, doing what he can to maximize yardage after the hole is clogged.
Once McKinnon changes course, Kalil is thrown aside like a ragdoll. No offensive coordinator ever wants to see the backs of his left tackle and right guard touching. That is a feat of its own.
The rookie back does his best to plunge forward and pick up four yards. He should be commended for how he handled this particular situation.
Continuation of this type of run blocking could cause problems, though. McKinnon is as green as a rookie back comes, having played his entire collegiate career in an option offense. He’s basically learning a brand-new position in terms of scheme and reads.
If he begins to abandon play design and improvise on plays that are blocked appropriately, big problems will follow. That doesn’t mean McKinnon will knowingly stop trusting his blockers. He may just simply begin looking to bounce runs too quickly or make hasty cuts before blocks can develop.
Growth on the offensive line is therefore important for both McKinnon and Bridgewater to learn in a way that does not sacrifice long-term gains for short-term effectiveness.
For the Vikings offense as a whole, the rest of the season hinges on where the offensive line goes from here. Without improvement, maybe even drastic improvement, more destructive showings are likely to follow.
All options should be on the table for the Vikings. Center John Sullivan is the only member of the starting five who has performed at a high level over recent weeks. Ducasse is the second-choice right guard himself, so finding a replacement for him may prove difficult. Kalil, however, is on pace for a benching, no matter the options behind him.
The best and most obvious answer is for the group to simply play better. That could happen. If it was that easy, though, it should have already happened.