The Main Concern? Getting the Offensive Line Healthy

The Vikings lost 31-24 Sunday to a good team on the road. From the start, it looked like one of those days where nothing would go right, and Minnesota committed uncharacteristic errors throughout the game. They turned the ball over three times, dropped five passes (matching their season total entering the day), and were defensively out of position on two decisive runs. The defense extended drives with incidental penalties and was beaten for a touchdown on a circus play in which they had the quarterback dead to rights but failed to close the deal.

It was, all around, a poor performance from one of the NFC’s best teams, and still they had a legitimate chance to win after charging back to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Had they punched the ball into the end zone rather than settle for a field goal on their final offensive drive — an area the team has generally excelled in 2017 — they probably would have won the game and improved to 11-2. As it stands, the Vikings are 10-3, and finished the once-daunting five-game gauntlet after their bye 4-1.

No, you shouldn’t be worried.

If you follow the law of probability (I’m still on the fence), the Vikings were considerably more likely to drop a game than end the season on a 12-game win streak. It’s part of the deal. The good news is:

  • There was enough abnormality in the loss to the Panthers to have reasonable confidence this type of performance was the exception, rather than the new rule.
  • The Vikings have three games left in the regular season. Two are against unquestionably subpar teams (Bengals and Bears), and the 2017 Vikings have yet to lose to a subpar team. One is against the 7-6 Packers, who just barely edged the winless Browns in overtime, and are riding a sliver of postseason hope that requires Aaron Rodgers to return at full strength and help them win at Carolina next week. The Packers without Rodgers scare me none, and even if he does return, they aren’t the toughest task the Vikings have faced this season.
There is one thing.

Now that I’ve lathered you with positivity, allow me to present the one potentially foreboding development from Sunday’s loss (which I already presented in the headline, but hey, that’s how these things work): injuries to the offensive line. We’re not nearing 2016 levels of concern, in which the line gradually devolved into something reminiscent of a large pile of burning tires, but for the ham up front, the day started poorly on the injury front and got worse.

Mike Remmers missed his fifth straight game with various ailments, marking the fifth time in a row he was listed as questionable and didn’t suit up. Pat Elflein, also deemed questionable on the final injury report, missed his first game with a shoulder injury (we’re on to you, questionable designation). And, perhaps most concerning, Riley Reiff, who has been a standout at left tackle all season, was rolled up on by another lineman in the third quarter. He missed the remainder of the game and was seen leaving the stadium in a walking boot. The team is calling it an ankle injury.

One one hand, it’s encouraging it’s an ankle injury and not a knee, as Reiff is one of the most important players to the offense, and a torn ACL or meniscus for him, coupled with a Vikings loss, would surely send fans into here-we-go-again mode and probably result in petitions to permanently shut the team down. On the other, a walking boot doesn’t exactly carry positive connotations; at best, it’s a low grade sprain. At worst, a more serious sprain or break that could cause Reiff to miss the rest of the season and potentially part of the playoffs.

So we don’t know, but we hope for the best. Pending Reiff’s official diagnosis, it’s possible all three injured lineman could be back in action next week, though part of me is convinced Remmers will continue to be listed as questionable without actually playing a game until 2024 or so. But the injury tally to the offensive line is something with which to be concerned; a big part of the Vikings’ success this year has been the dramatic turnaround of the blockers up front, and rolling primarily with backups for a multi-game stretch could cripple the entire offense. The team’s line depth is improved from last season, but Hill/Isidora/Easton/Berger/Sirles is not a championship-level lineup.

The main thing now is ensuring the line is as healthy as possible for the postseason. Elflein did a good amount of work in practice last week, and it seems like he’ll be ready to go sooner rather than later. Remmers has had plenty of time to heal, and we’ll know more about Reiff soon. But even if it means missing an extra game in the short-term, the team would be wise to exercise caution with these players in order to have them ready for the playoffs. You can beat Cincinnati and Chicago with backup linemen, but Seattle or New Orleans are different stories.

Luckily, Case Keenum has proved adept at evading the rush and buying time in the pocket, and the run game still managed a healthy 4.8 yards per carry against Carolina with an undermanned front. Still, elite line play takes this offense from good to great, and the Vikings will need that boost in the postseason. Heal up now, for playoff football is coming.

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Sam Neumann

Sam Neumann is a freelance writer and lifelong Vikings apologist. He has seen his share of Vikings-related heartbreak, but believes we are united by the hope that one day that norse ship will come in. Sam is the author of three books, including the New York Times Bestseller Memoirs of a Gas Station. He lives in Denver, Colorado, and has had it with Broncos fans. You can follow him on twitter @NeumSamN.

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