Thursday, September 3, 2015

brandon fusco

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Who is this Matt Kalil, and where has he been? I’ve watched the Vikings’ three preseason games, and the No. 75 stepping onto the field isn’t the same player I watched in 2014. We all know the story — Kalil allowed a league-high 12 sacks last season while playing every offensive snap through chronic knee pain. More often than not, Kalil looked slow, unsure of himself, and passive in pass protection, giving some of the league’s best edge rushers free shots on first-year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

It wasn’t all his fault, though. Kalil’s knees became such an issue last season that he required arthroscopic surgery from Dr. James Andrews — the same doctor who repaired Adrian Peterson’s ACL — and has been taking precautionary steps to improve his health since January. Midway through training camp, Kalil reflected on his injuries and the mental toll they took on him this offseason, per Andrew Krammer:

“You get to a point where everything hurts so much, you’re like, ‘OK, one more year and then there’s no way,'” Kalil said. “There’s a lot of things, too, besides football. Obviously I love football and I’m healthy, obviously I’m going to do everything I can like I am now.”

“But if you’re not [healthy], it wears on you. If you had to go to practice and feel excruciating pain every day, it wouldn’t be really fun to work with. You feel like you have to survive at practice instead of get better and work on your skills. You know what I mean? That’s what it was like last year. It’s all good now, I’m healthy.”

Given his newfound health and confidence, Kalil can finally focus on perfecting his technique. That extra practice time, from working individually on his kickstep to battling Everson Griffen in one-on-ones, means Kalil is beginning to look more and more like his 2012 self. That Matt Kalil, the fourth-overall selection in the  NFL Draft, earned a trip to the Pro Bowl and lived up to the college hype, routinely shutting down elite rushers like Aldon Smith, Robert Mathis, and Clay Matthews.

However, his road to recovery hasn’t been without bumps and bruises. As Adam wrote earlier this month, Kalil started camp as the team’s revolving door, losing one-on-one battles with Anthony Barr, Everson Griffen, and even rookie Danielle Hunter. The same issues that cropped up in 2014 — lazy footwork, high pad level, a late first punch — resurfaced throughout practices, and the worries of an ever-fearful Vikings fan base grew with every poor camp report.

But then, the Vikings traveled to Canton for the Hall of Fame Game and Kalil played…great? He did, are you sure? Yes, Kalil was solid, and surprisingly, that’s been the case in every one of the Vikings’ three exhibition games. Even Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, which ranked Kalil the third-worst tackle in 2014, has been surprised by Kalil’s performances:

Where did this turnaround come from, and how has Kalil been so efficient? Granted, it’s only the preseason, and we’re dealing with a small sample size, but the film never lies — Kalil looks healthy, motivated, and engaged thus far in 2015.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

Last week, I wrote that the Norv Turner and the Minnesota Vikings need to let Teddy Bridgewater operate from the pocket, or, create moving pockets through roll-outs and play action. If the Vikings are going to be successful this season and beyond, they’ll need to ride those skinny knees of a healthy Teddy Bridgewater.

While play-calling helps minimize the effect of a defense’s schemes and blitzes, protecting the quarterback begins at the line of scrimmage with the offensive line and running backs — two of the most important positional groups heading into 2015.

Their importance has skyrocketed in recent days, most notably after the loss of Phil Loadholt during Saturday night’s preseason game against the Buccaneers. Loadholt suffered a torn achilles and will miss the entire season, which puts him at risk of being cut before 2016. As Adam wrote on Sunday, the Vikings have a few options to replace “Big Phil,” though the job at right tackle appears to be rookie T.J. Clemmings’s to lose.

So much relies on the Vikings’ group up front, and so much of that pressure falls on a select few players, from embattled left tackle Matt Kalil to newly-minted right guard Mike Harris. Can this reshuffled and retooled line live up to the test, or will Teddy Bridgewater end up battered and bruised like he was last season?

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

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Image courtesy of Chris Price

Rick Spielman, Mike Zimmer and Norv Turner appear to have assembled one hell of an offense.

Teddy Bridgewater looks to be a legitimate franchise quarterback. Adrian Peterson has returned and if age is a problem it certainly isn’t showing. The wide receiver talent, speed, and depth has Mankato buzzing and homers dreaming of future highlight reels. Tight end seems to be a strength and even right guard has some promising competition to cause optimism. Brandon Fusco is almost certainly going to be an upgrade at left guard after sliding on down the line.

Yes, when it comes to the 2015 Minnesota Vikings offense, the sky might not even be the limit and all of the pieces seem to be falling into place.

All of the pieces, that is, except for one.

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Image courtesy of Vikings.com

In an ESPN article posted Monday, NFL senior writer John Clayton said the Vikings are in the running for a 2015 playoff team.

In the article, Clayton cites a few factors in his analysis. Teddy Bridgewater certainly shoulders much of the responsibility moving forwardClayton did offer praise for Bridgewater’s rookie seasonbut it’s more than just the quarterback at this point…

It’s adding Adrian Peterson back into the equation and seeing how much better Peterson makes Bridgewater. Clayton reminded us of the following:

Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton were success stories early in their careers because of their talent — and because they had the benefit of running attacks that typically produced 130 yards or more. (Yes, you can pile up added rushing yardage late in wins, but all three of these teams built around the run.) Look what Peterson did for Christian Ponder. In 2012, Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards coming off knee surgery. Ponder averaged 23.7 points per game and the Vikings made the playoffs. After four years, Minnesota determined Ponder wasn’t good enough and moved on to Bridgewater.

I like Clayton’s take on this. Granted, the team needs both AP and TB to play well; there’s no doubt about that. But individually, neither player is as strong as the way they can feed off each other. Bridgewater had a solid debut season (averaging 22.1 points per game) without Peterson on the field, and having the star RB back in the lineup will take a bit of the pressure off Bridgewater’s shoulders.

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