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The Vikings’ O-Line philosophy has been flawed since the beginning

Let’s discuss Zone Blocking, shall we?

Note: This article pulls from the best breakdown of the Minnesota Vikings’ options for their offensive line in this month’s Draft from our friends at DailyNorseman.com. wludford adds an amazing level of analysis that I highly recommend you check out before/in lieu of reading my drivel.

If there’s one single issue that has consistently kept the Zimmer-era Minnesota Vikings from reaching their full potential it has been the offensive line. That is an objective fact that most presume will be (finally) rectified in this month’s NFL Draft as the team had used every free agent acquisition dollar to fill holes on the defense.

That could happen, however, when going through the above-referenced SPECTACULAR article from DailyNorseman’s wludford, I noticed an oft-overlooked aspect of the Vikings’ offensive line philosophy. So before we get all excited about third-round guard the Vikings take we should look at why the line has continued to devolve despite the recent attention paid to it in the early rounds of the Draft.

Dustin Baker, our NFL Insider and editor of the brand spanking new FranchiseTagged.com, and I wrote dueling articles last month on the topic of whether or not the Vikings have ignored or are still ignoring the O-line:

The Vikings do ignore the O-line, just not how they used to

The Vikings Don’t “Ignore” the Offensive Line

In my response, I broke down some of the feedback I’d received from watching tape on the Vikings’ 2020 offensive line with former players and coaches, in which they essentially pointed out that the entire unit is as disjointed as it is technically unsound and overpowered.

Dustin’s main point is:

“A brief glimpse at Minnesota’s depth chart showcases names like Brian O’Neill, Garrett Bradbury, and Ezra Cleveland. Those players are not menial prospects scooped from the draft’s later rounds. It is fair game to criticize some of those players’ performances, but to assert that “Spielman ignores the offensive line” is rooted in no basis of fact.”

Because:

“Minnesota is the only NFL franchise to spend 2nd-Round-or-higher draft capital on an offensive line in each of the last three seasons. Period. No other general manager has done that.”

That’s true. So why did the line regress (which seemed impossible) in 2020 and why does it feel like the line is in worse shape than it even was in the regressed season that was 2020?

Strap in!

First, the line is worse off because the team is allergic to offensive line depth. Many people say that the Vikings value “swing” offensive lineman as if that’s code for anything else but being cheap at the position group. They like guards that can play center and vice-versa because they’d rather pay one guy for two positions than two.

Even when that’s the case they don’t even want to pay THAT guy. Just ask Brett Jones who has been cut and re-signed by the Vikings so many times that you have to feel for the guy at this point.

Anytime the Vikings feel like they have some depth they automatically scrap it. Players like Pat Elflein, and/or Alex Boone were released when in the case of Elflein it didn’t even seem to save the team much 2020 cap space.

The second point, though, is that at some point you have to question the Vikings’ commitment to “athleticism” to, as wludford puts it, “bulk and power”.

Let’s look at wludford’s full quote:

Beyond top-tier athletic profiles, each of the Vikings three [offensive line] starters shared some common characteristics in their college careers: solid performance, 3-years as a starter, but also typically lacking in power, strength. The Vikings run a wide-zone blocking scheme, which prioritizes athleticism over bulk and power. Presumably the Vikings figured that athleticism can’t be taught, but more strength and size can be added with an NFL weight and nutrition program.”

Let’s take Ezra Cleveland. Who personifies the Vikings’ offensive line philosophy perfectly in every way. He’s never played guard and instead was a left tackle at Boise State, so of course the Vikings put him at right guard.

Beyond that, his draft profile (from our friends at BleacherReport) had the following Strengths/Weaknesses:

Strengths:

A natural athlete who looks the part on paper at 6’6″, 311 pounds with 4.93-second 40-yard-dash speed at the NFL Scouting Combine in addition to solid agility drills.
—Three-year starter at left tackle for Boise State and has very good experience and rep count.
—Poised and patient waiting for rushers to expose themselves before hitting them with his punch.
—Naturally smooth and fluid when asked to slide from his spot or get upfield in the run game.
—Ideal body and agility for a zone-blocking scheme.

Weaknesses:

– Does not play with strength needed to keep pass-rushers from beating him consistently with bull-rushes and power moves.

– Dealt with a turf toe injury all of 2019 that affected his balance.
– —Cannot sit down and drop anchor against rushers to shut them down when chest-to-chest.
– —Can match quickness off the corner but can’t recover when a rusher hits him with a speed-to-power conversion.
– —It could all be related to his toe injury, but Cleveland did not play with the required power or toughness to be an NFL starter.

Point being, he exemplifies the prototypical Vikings offensive lineman.

Now, don’t get me wrong, other NFL franchises have instituted a zone-blocking scheme successfully. So. I don’t necessarily mean that zone blocking and a clean pocket from which to pass are mutually exclusive. Instead? My argument is that the Vikings are missing a pretty key aspect of zone blocking which permeates the way they draft and develop players for that scheme.

Let’s take a look at this zone blocking breakdown from FishDuck.com, which apparently is an Oregon football fan site.

Developing Offensive Linemen for the Zone Scheme | FishDuck

FishDuck breaks down the key components of what makes a successful zone blocking scheme in terms of key characteristics each lineman should have.

For example:

Flexibility – To execute the blocking scheme and maximize effectiveness, the offensive lineman needs to have a certain degree of
flexibility in his ankles, knees, and hips. This will allow him to be more comfortable in the appropriate stance and will benefit him in his ability to move quickly with an optimal pad level.

The next characteristics will explain what I’m going for, before that let’s get back to a quote from my counter-point to Dustin’s article (above) that was sourced from a former NFL offensive lineman.

“I have no reason to think Bradbury will necessarily be a bust but he is playing very poorly right now. Bad footwork, no anchor in pass pro, off balance constantly. The most shocking thing is the lack of awareness. Looks lost on the field a lot. When I say bad footwork too I mean it’s loose. He can move his feet but he’s taking massive steps on reach blocks and play action sets and making it so he literally can’t take a second step. Showed up over and over again against Tampa.”

Back to FishDuck.com?

* Stability – The offensive lineman must be able to move his feet quickly in his footwork without stumbling or falling down. This includes keeping a wide base and an ability to redirect the feet numerous times once the play has started.
* Footwork – The techniques involved in the zone scheme are heavily dependent on the proper steps necessary to ensure effective blocking angles and establishing favorable leverage on the defender. This requires attention to detail and thousands of repetitions. It also requires a certain level of agility and quickness.

Oh, and this to boot:

Field Vision – Linemen must develop an ability to see the defensive front and the reactions of defenders after the ball is snapped. They must have the ability to use their vision to track the defender and use leverage to cut off his path to the ball carrier.

Finally, though, the coup de grace:

Physicality – This is a general requirement of all offensive linemen. The nature of the position requires the athlete to be capable of moving people around and is heavily predicated on attitude. He needs to attack defenders relentlessly with a goal of imposing his will.

Does anyone think of any offensive linemen from the past few seasons as one that can “move people around” or that can “impose [their] will”?

It seems that the Vikings have forgotten that aspect of the job. Instead, they seemingly prioritize “getting to the second level” over all else. Sound like bluster? Ask Josh Kline.

Kline, alongside Brian O’Neill, actually (unlike all the praise for Cleveland’s 2020) had a positive impact on the right side of the line in 2019. He was much better in pass protection than Cleveland, or Samia, (or anyone not named Joe Berger) but was let go due to his inability to “get to the second level” or help in screens for a team that runs 2-3 running back screens a week (his concussions didn’t help, I’m sure, but that was the reason given). Seems like an odd way to run an offense.

“Sure, you’ve given the right side of the line something to build upon for the next five years, but, you don’t jog that fast so we’re going to replace you with the first player in history to get a PFF pass protection grade of this:

I’ve seen many a strange thing in this world, including a man who got hit in the belly with a cannonball

With the Draft coming up, and (at least according to wludford) the Vikings seemingly looking at guard over tackle, we have to ask whether or not the Vikings’ version of an “athletic” offensive line is even worth investing in.

With Klint Kubiak replacing his father at offensive coordinator, it is hard to get excited about the continuity on a unit that has been 27th/27th/and 29th in pass protection in the three seasons that Kirk Cousins has been here and 27th-29th during the Kubiak era.

Of course I am not actually advocating for the Vikings to NOT do what I’ve hoped they’d do longer than anyone in Vikings media. Instead, I’m making a point because the Vikings currently have more questions than answers on the line so considering the fact that they couldn’t even find ONE decent pass-blocking guard in recent seasons and now need two guards or a guard and a left tackle?

Terrifying. Especially considering that there are valid questions about whether or not Bradbury will get a fifth-year extension and whether Cleveland is either even a guard or the answer at left tackle.

When you combine that with the Vikings’ track record (or lack thereof) of drafting and developing linemen, it’s hard to get enthusiastic about their plan for this Draft when it’s been proven that they (*Deep Inhale*):

– Value the wrong things philosophically.
– Seemingly don’t develop the players they do draft.
– Refuse to draft guards who have actually played guard.
– Loathe depth on the line.
– Shuffle players around in lieu of actual genuine investment (after all, they draft mostly busts, or players who need further development or aren’t made for whatever system the Vikings think they want, THEN shuffle those players around after they fail elsewhere on the line).
– Have more needs than not on the line.

It’d be like getting excited to go to the State Fair if all you did was hang out near the porta-potty’s. Sure, you’re technically at the fair, but as your 2019 pink-eye proved… You’re doing it wrong.

So let’s hope that the Vikings powers-that-be understand the importance of this year’s draft. It could be argued that both head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman are on the hot seat going into the 2021 season (before you all caps respond to this point, Google ‘Zimmer hot seat’ or ‘Why am I alone?’), and it has been said that the fear of unemployment is a great motivator (which explains why I’M alone), but after the massive 2020 draft haul brought five defensive backs and one actual guard who had played guard (the 15th pick by the Vikings and second to last pick on the entire draft)?

I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Now if anyone needs me I’ll be at the Fair.

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Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson started purplePTSD.com back in 2015 & purpleTERRITORYradio.com in 2019, and purchased VikingsTerritory.com before the 2017-18 season , used to write for VikingsJournal.com and is the host of the ’Morning Joes’ & ‘About the Labor’ Podcasts, as well. Follow on Twitter: @vtPTSD

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finfineman
finfineman
2 months ago

Lots of good points. I would like to see Cleveland go to LT, he doesnt seem like a guard. Its his position. Get a first round left guard. Put Udoh at right guard. That’s a big athletic group.

Richard Beckish
Richard Beckish
2 months ago

It’s really simple (and I agree with the article) – the Vikings need to get some maulers up front. People constantly gripe about Cousins but the truth is the guy’s an excellent quarterback – when he doesn’t have a defensive lineman in his lap. Who cares if a lineman is good at “getting to the second level” when year in and year out, the Vikings don’t win THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE. Stop the nerdy nonsense – get a couple of cave trolls.

Mulatu
Mulatu
2 months ago

Great article. The Vikings problem (other than the fact RS is a doofus and Zim is a joke) is that the version of the zone scheme they run is lame. But they already invested heavily with Bradbury and Cleveland, those guys are not going to turn into powerhouse blockers in a different scheme, so they are trapped. It is beyond mind blowing that they keep repeating the same mistakes. And there is zero chance they are going to trade for Brown.

This team is doomed until RS and Zim get fired.

Nancy Vlaisavljevich
Nancy Vlaisavljevich
2 months ago

zimmer suppose to be coach of the team where’s concern bout offensive line he needs to call Bud Grant, offensive line needs to addressed equally

cka2nd
cka2nd
2 months ago

“First, the line is worse off because the team is allergic to offensive line depth…Elflein…Boone.”

Elflein was most likely cut at his own request so that he could latch on to some other team and put some 2020 film in the can for free agency, a strategy that worked like a charm for him. Yes, we should have kept him, but not as depth, but to replace Dozier in the starting line-up. However, that calculation ran up against doing a player for whom they no longer had long-term plans a solid for his career. Boone was cut, at least in part, because a guy who was supposed to be a locker room leader had become a distraction, instead. A better example to make your case is John Sullivan, who we could have and should have kept for the 2016 season instead of cutting him after he lost the competition with Joe Berger for the starting center job. After losing Mike Harris to a brain condition and with all of the injuries at OT, he would have given us a veteran back-up center that could have allowed us to bench Fusco and move Berger over to RG sooner.

The team has had a bigger problem putting together starting line-ups than benches for their offensive lines. They’ve carried two to four veteran back-ups on the 2020, 2019, 2017 and 2014 lines during the Zimmer era, and made trades for depth in response to injuries bringing down starters and/or promoting veteran back-ups in 2018 and 2015. We supplemented the veteran back-ups with 4th, 5th, 6th or 7th round draftees – not at all unusual for the league – and even a 2nd rounder in 2018. Even 2016, a virtual MASH episode, should have been different, as we were supposed to have veterans competing for three starting positions, and at least one or two of the losers would have probably been kept as back-ups.

2020 – Vets Hill and Jones, 4th rounder Samia, 6th Udoh.
2019 – Vets Hill, Jones and Dozier, 4th Samia, 6th Udoh.
2018 – Vets Compton (signed to be a swing back-up G/T, only started due to Easton’s injury) and Jones (acquired only when apparent Elflein couldn’t start season), 2nd O’Neill, 4th Isidora
2017 – Vets Sirles, Hill and Easton (until Boone was cut at the last minute), and 4th Isidora.
2016 – Should have kept Sullivan, who barely got off the Washington bench that year. Otherwise, we lost Mike Harris to a then unknown illness (probably would have kept him but maybe not Fusco depending on who won the RG1 job), but we had our two 2015 trade acquisitions, Sirles and Easton, along with third-year UDFA Kerin and 4th rounders Clemmings and Beavers.
2015 – Harris was the only real vet going into camp before injuries forced him to start, though we added Sirles after Loadholt was hurt, and eventually traded for Easton to go with Kerin and 7th Shepherd after 4th Clemmings was also forced to start. Definitely could have used another veteran going into camp, though.
2014 – Vets Berger, Harris, Ducasse and Webb, plus 5th Yankey and UDFA’s Kerin and Wentworth.

I have a much bigger problem with Mike Remmers and Dakota Dozier being starting guards than I do with back-ups named Hill, Jones, Dozier, Compton, Sirles, Harris, Berger, Ducasse and Webb, or using 4th through 7th rounders to try to fill out the OL bench.

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