The Vikings Are Back in the Hunt Because of the Trenches
The Minnesota Vikings have been locked in offensive line purgatory for a long time.
Although Rick Spielman is enjoying some recent success after rebuilding the trenches on both sides of the ball, it has been a long time coming. The offensive and defensive fronts were a big reason the Vikings sit at 5-5 and control their destiny as the current 6th seed in the NFC wildcard race.
When Mike Zimmer was hired in 2014, the Vikings tried to turn the page. It has taken a while, but this past offseason Spielman and Zimmer put an extreme emphasis on getting better on the defensive line while constantly upgrading the offensive line through the draft and trades.
Recently inducted 2021 Hall of Fame enshrinee, Steve Hutchinson, left the team following the 2011 season. That was almost a chain reaction to the offensive line being shuffled around for the next decade. Pro Bowler and longtime Viking Bryant Mckinnie left the year before. Joe Berger, Phil Loadholt, Brandon Fusco, Matt Khalil, Geoff Schwartz, Ryan Cook, the list goes on and on.
Even though Adrian Peterson broke two thousand yards and almost broke Eric Dickerson’s rushing record for most yards in a season, the offensive line was much poorer than you’d think.
Overall, the Minnesota Vikings front office deserves some praise — not a ton — but some. The offensive line ranked 24th through Week 10 of the 2021 season, per PFF. The grade looks worse than the production has been.
The offensive unit did not have 1st-round pick Christian Darrisaw until after the first five weeks. He has made a profound impact on the line as a whole. Since the Matt Khalil failure, Minnesota has had LT issues. This past NFL draft, the Vikings landed Christian Darrisaw out of Virginia Tech. He started slowly, tending an injured groin but has really come on as of late.
Ezra Cleveland, out of Boise State, was drafted with the 58th overall pick in 2020. Cleveland transitioned to guard and has really helped Minnesota solidify that left side of the line for years to come.
The Garrett Bradbury experiment may be over. Besides his horrendous Pro Football Focus grades, the third-year player lacks strength/anchor as an NFL offensive lineman.
Mason Cole has come in and immediately jelled with the starters. He is not an elite player but is playing average. This may be a position the Vikings explore in the coming draft or perhaps re-sign Cole if he earns it through solid play the rest of the way.
Oil Udoh is the biggest question mark now at right guard — is rookie G/C Wyatt Davis waiting in the wings?. Winning the job in camp and coming into his own early on was great, but the struggles are here now for Udoh, and he needs to get back to his early-season form.
With Brian O’Neill bookending the right side, the Vikings winning at the line of scrimmage will be solidified offensively.
The 2020 season was one to forget for the Vikings defensive front. The defensive line ranked in the bottom units of the NFL any way you want to look at it — pressures, sacks, hurries, QB hits.
Not having Danielle Hunter was a massive part of that. Spielman and Zimmer seemed to have learned a lesson here as they brought on a lot of pass rush help and added meat to beef up the interior. Minnesota could not stop the run or get pressure on the opposing quarterback, and Zimmer was tired of it. The Vikings started with some free agent signings, and more reinforcements came via the 2021 NFL Draft.
This past offseason, Zimmer had a hard time re-watching his defense on tape, ranking dead last in pressure rate at 21.6% for the regular season, per PFF.
On top of that, the Vikings could not stop the run, at all. Nose tackle Michael Pierce was already returning. The edge reinforcement of Everson Griffen has been invaluable, as his pass rush win rate has ranked among the highest in the league this season. Griffen, a longtime Viking, brings the juice and that Purple People Eater mojo.
Sheldon Richardson is playing valuable snaps at defensive end, helping fill the void of Danielle Hunter, who was lost for the season again due to a torn pectoral muscle. A mild breakout from Kenny Willekes has been a welcome sight. The drafting of Patrick Jones (Pittsburgh) and Janarius Robinson (FSU) are good pieces for defensive line guru Andre Patterson to mold as future Minnesota Vikings.
Spielman and Zimmer took a look in the mirror and saw the importance of making improvements along the line of scrimmage.
One of the main reasons the Vikings have had such success in past games is because they continue to win at the line of scrimmage. In the NFL, it is essential to build athletic, strong fronts. Otherwise, a team does not stand a chance. The only way there will be playoff football for Minnesota is if the Vikings winning at the line of scrimmage continues. Book it.
Also Read: Suddenly, the Vikings Are in the Playoffs