Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Today’s post marks the start of a season-long series of articles, where I’ll highlight specific players to watch during the Vikings’ weekly games. Tune in every Friday for new additions throughout the season!

This week, the Minnesota Vikings take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the game won’t take place at Heinz Field. No, the teams will grace Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s annual game and celebration of the NFL’s most prestigious players.

While players like Adrian Peterson and Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown will skip the exhibition, a few key starters may see extended playing time, per Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer:

“We want to be crisp, we want to look sharp and I want to see the things we’ve been practicing being taken to the game field,” Zimmer said. “Whether it’s techniques or alignments, certain things against people you really haven’t prepared for. And, how they react to certain things they’re not prepared for. And, obviously, evaluation of a lot of different players.”

While the coaches will be evaluating every player, from rookie cornerback Trae Waynes to strong safety Robert Blanton, I’ll be keeping my eye on one of the team’s most critical positional groups — the offensive line. Left tackle Matt Kalil is entering a make-or-break season, and Phil Loadholt returns from a torn pectoral muscle suffered in 2014. In the interior, former right guard Brandon Fusco has flopped to the left side of the line, and the team’s best lineman, John Sullivan, anchors the unit at center.

If there’s one position surrounded by questions — other than left tackle — it’s right guard, where a number of players are competing to start. But when the Vikings take the field on Sunday evening, one veteran will have a chance to solidify his hold between Sullivan and Loadholt:

Mike Harris vs. Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line

At the start of training camp, head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner surprised fans and analysts alike when they handed Mike Harris the starting spot at right guard. A natural tackle at 6’5″ and 338 pounds, Harris is better suited to the outside, where he can take advantage of his 32½” arms against more explosive pass rushers.

But, his play through two weeks at training camp has been encouraging, and Norv Turner made his feelings known in a press conference last week. “He’s looked surprisingly good in there,” Turner said. “It’s tough for a guy his size, his length, sometimes going in there, but he’s getting tested.”

That test began in Week 7 last season, when Harris was forced to play following injuries to Brandon Fusco and then-starting right guard Vladimir Ducasse. In 53 snaps against one of the league’s best defensive fronts, Harris allowed just one quarterback hit, and showed little rust for a player who had started 17 career games at tackle.

A closer look at the film from that game reveals Harris’s greatest strengths and weaknesses. In the clip below, Harris and Loadholt engage the defensive tackle in a double team, and Harris flows to the second level to take on the middle linebacker:

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

His chip at the first level is decent, but Harris appears lost once he disengages from the double team. Brandon Spikes, the middle linebacker sitting in the hole, is the first defender to make contact with Jerick Mckinnon, who’s taken down much earlier than the rest of the blocking should have allowed.

I’d blame his inability to block Spikes on two things: his lack of experience at the position, and the play of Spikes, who is one the league’s best downhill linebackers. Harris stops his feet in space and lets Spikes cross his face, leading to an easy tackle for Spikes. With an adequate block, and even a bit of contact on Spikes, McKinnon would’ve likely taken this run into Bills territory.

Even with his deficiencies against the Bills, Harris made a few excellent plays to spring McKinnon or protect Teddy Bridgewater. In the example below, the Bills attempt to run a pass stunt, looping Marcell Dareus around Phil Loadholt and bringing Mario Williams underneath. At the snap, Harris drives Dareus upfield, disrupting the timing of the stunt:

Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass
Image courtesy of NFL Game Pass

Harris diagnoses the stunt from the start, and once he walls of Dareus, shifts back inside to take on Mario Williams. With the help of backup center Joe Berger, Harris creates a pocket for Teddy Bridgewater, who delivers a strike to Greg Jennings down the field. He does an excellent job holding his ground, keeping his hands inside, and delivering powerful punches upon first contact.

Sunday Outlook

This type of play will be key moving forward, and exemplifies Harris’s better qualities as a lineman — the strength to block defensive tackles, the intelligence to sniff out stunts, and surprising lateral quickness. Heading into Sunday’s game, Harris will have a chance to build on a strong camp and eradicate a few nagging issues.

Most notably, Harris will need to continue adjusting to the smaller man’s game. In an interview with ESPN’s Andrew Krammer, Harris addressed the challenge moving inside:

“That’s been one of my issues, trying to stay low,” Harris said. “I’m a big dude. The team’s counting on me to move some bodies around.” 

Norv Turner mentioned those difficulties as well last week, noting Harris’s progression. “He’s gradually getting his pad level down,” Turner said. “You can’t play too high in there because you’re just going to play against big guys all the time.”

On Sunday, Harris will see limited snaps against a few of these big guys, including Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, and Stephon Tuitt. Last season, Pittsburgh’s defense allowed just 53 yards rushing per game, and finished the year as the league’s second-best defense. Their linemen generated a low number of sacks, but their run-stopping ability was key to Pittsburgh’s success in 2014. They’re athletic, lengthy, and explosive, providing Harris and early test of his newfound skills at guard.

Whether Harris plays one series or an entire quarter, it’ll be key to watch his play in a number of facets, from pass protection to run blocking. I’ll be paying close attention to his work at the second level and his ability to move defensive linemen in the running game. In his lone action at right guard last season, Harris was successful when down blocking and using his strength to his advantage. If he can harness that power and keep his pad level low, he’ll open holes for Jerick McKinnon inside and protect the team’s quarterback from a number of blitzes and stunts.

When asked about his feeling before taking the field tomorrow, Harris expressed a a mix of confidence and humility.

“After 10 practices, managed to get better and improved on a lot of things. Feeling very confident for this Sunday and many more games to start … It’s an honor to be out there that first preseason game with the starting lineup.”