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What's Next for Minnesota Vikings After Injury to RT Phil Loadholt?

Darren PageFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2014

Sep 8, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Minnesota Vikings tackle Phil Loadholt (71) during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Detroit won 34-24. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The injury bug bit the Minnesota Vikings offense again on Sunday. In Week 3, the Vikings lost starting right guard Brandon Fusco for the season. Now the same has happened to starting right tackle Phil Loadholt.

A torn pectoral muscle will put Loadholt under the knife, ending his season per ESPN.com, the same injury suffered by Fusco, as reported by Pro Football Talk.

Another injury loss up front leaves the Vikings in an unenviable position. Even with Loadholt, the Vikings were giving up 3.1 sacks per game, via TeamRankings.com, good enough for a No. 30 ranking. Now the offensive line loses a veteran cog and one of its better performers.

Of the current starters as of last week, Loadholt was allowing pressure at a lower rate than both Matt Kalil and Charlie Johnson, despite facing some premier rushers on the edge in comparison to the interior blockers.

Pass Plays Per Pressure
Matt Kalil9.6
Charlie Johnson8.3
John Sullivan3.2
Joe Berger5.4
Phil Loadholt7.6
Source: Pro Football Focus

The point is not necessarily that Loadholt is one of the league’s best offensive tackles. He is far from that.

Replacing him is the massive problem, because 6’5” 320-pound behemoths do not grow on trees. When offensive lines lose valuable pieces, even satisfactory pieces, the effects can be devastating. That is especially true at the tackle position, where the behemoths must have the feet of someone who weighs 100 pounds less.

Mike Harris filled in for Loadholt late in the Packers game and is the expected successor into Week 13 and beyond. The Vikings claimed Harris off of waivers from the San Diego Chargers back in August, as Pro Football Talk reported.

Now Harris will be ushered into a starting job for the second time in his short career. He was an undrafted rookie in 2012 but was immediately thrust into San Diego’s starting lineup with the team’s losses at left tackle, as described by Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.

His season was a disaster. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Harris a cumulative grade of minus-44.5 on the season. For comparison, the struggling Kalil is on pace for a minus-45.8 this season. Kalil doesn’t benefit from a veteran quarterback with a quick trigger like Harris should have in 2012 with Philip Rivers.

Rogelio Solis/Associated Press

It should be noted that Harris played the majority of his college career on the right instead of the left, so the position he’s about to take over may be the one he’s most comfortable at.

Minnesota will still expect a drop-off from Loadholt to Harris, likely a steep one. Harris’ track record as an NFL tackle will keep expectations very low. That only exacerbates the issues up front, because the left side of the Minnesota line is in shambles, and the offense features a rookie running back who struggles in pass protection.

Those factors are putting too much on the plate of Teddy Bridgewater, holding back his production over the past couple of weeks. From a pass-block perspective, things are likely to get worse before they ever get better.

Because of the lack of offensive line options on the market, the only immediate remedy for the Vikings is to adapt the offense to try to mask the limitations of the personnel at hand.

In the passing game, that means quicker throws to get the ball out of Bridgewater’s hands. His time to throw averages 2.69 seconds, per Pro Football Focus, with only five quarterbacks holding it longer out of 27 qualifiers.

Adjustments must come from two places. First, the rookie QB must be more decisive with the football and not look to do too much from inside the pocket. It collapses much too quickly for that to regularly be successful.

Second, Norv Turner has to comply with route combinations that clear coverage more quickly, giving Bridgewater places to actually throw it within a shorter time frame. Paired with routes that break earlier are shorter drops.

The QB’s drop from center syncs up with the timing of routes by design. With the downfield route combos Turner has been so keen to implement, Bridgewater has frequently utilized five-step or even seven-step drops. Here is an example of a seven-step drop from under center in Buffalo:

Credit: NFL Game Rewind

Based off of where Bridgewater’s feet landed on this particular drop, a five-step drop would have shortened his depth by almost two yards. This screenshot distorts just how long that is within the tight confines of a pocket.

With ends tearing around the corner from both directions against tackles who struggle with speed rushes, Bridgewater has often been a sitting duck with these deep drops. A five-step or a three-step drop dramatically increases the distance the rusher must go to run the circle and get to the QB.

In addition, shorter drops ask less of the tackles in terms of depth from the line of scrimmage. They also keep tackles and guards connected, helping them handle twists and pick up blitzes effectively. Minnesota’s line needs that kind of help, even if sacrifices must be made elsewhere.

Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

The deeper drops and downfield route combinations can be successful. They have in many of Turner’s offenses. Unfortunately, the Vikings lack the personnel to have consistent success with them right now. Losing Phil Loadholt on the edge amplifies the problem.

Slight tweaks have been in order for a while now, and the Vikings offense showed a little bit of flexibility with passing plays against Green Bay.

Further steps still need to be taken. Neither offensive tackle is reliable at all at this stage. In fact, one would not be stretching to say that without Loadholt, the Vikings have the worst pair of starting tackles in the league. Add in a leaky left guard and a green running back and it becomes clear just how steep a hill the entire offense is trying to climb.

Unless the scheming shifts to lend a hand to some of these overwhelmed players, more stifled showings like the one in Chicago will reappear.

Statistics via ESPN.com unless noted otherwise.