There has been a serious push this offseason for the Vikings to fix what was a dreadfully bad offensive line in 2020. It left Kirk Cousins running for his life much of the time due to broken down blocking schemes, and against a good blitzing team like Tampa Bay, the Vikings offense became somewhat stagnant. Vikings analysts and fans have taken to websites, Twitter accounts, and everything in between to call for improvements next season.
Why the O-Line Could Struggle Again
All that said, what if the o-line isn’t better in 2021? It may seem like a silly question to be asking this early into the offseason, but there could be a few reasons that this doesn’t happen.
The first and most unlikely reason, Spielman just doesn’t focus on it in the draft or free agency. I’d be shocked if it worked out that way, but it’s always possible that he puts more focus on the defensive side of the ball. The Vikings have a lot of areas to improve, and there’s a chance that the offensive line is what gets left out. Cousins played well enough despite bad protection, and Dalvin Cook had a career year. Who’s to say that they couldn’t do that again?
Secondly, they could draft someone in the first round, but the prospect doesn’t change much. As I always say, draft position doesn’t equal production. First round draft picks bust almost as often as they boom. It’s possible that whoever the Vikings draft just isn’t able to adjust to the NFL game or needs a couple years to develop.
Finally, something the Vikings are all too familiar with: there could be injuries. It’s the ugly side of the game and happens to every team. It just hits some teams harder than others (see San Francisco 49ers) and can completely derail a season. Luckily for the Vikings, the guys they have right now haven’t been very injury prone in the past, but that can change at any moment.
The Underlying Consequences of a Bad O-Line in 2021
The Vikings nearly got away with making the playoffs in 2020 despite an underwhelming o-line. If they didn’t run into the buzzsaw that was Tampa Bay and New Orleans at the end of the regular season, they probably would have found a way in. So how bad could the consequences really be in 2021 if the line doesn’t improve? Well, I think it could be devastating. The main reason for this is the Vikings schedule.
My article talking about why 2021 could be a massive test for the Vikings got a ton of pushback from readers saying that we could argue the same thing for every NFL team. While this may be true to an extent, I really do feel like the schedule makes an especially difficult test for the NFC North teams.
Being stuck with by far the deepest divisions in football (NFC West and AFC North) at the same time makes every single week a dogfight. Throwing in Dallas and Carolina as well, especially if Dak Prescott returns healthy and Carolina finds a way to get Deshaun Watson, makes this schedule a nightmare for the Vikings.
2021 Could Be Worse
If you thought the o-line was exploited in 2020, it could be worse in 2021 if the Vikings stand pat. For all the anti-Cousins folks out there, he was hit more than any other quarterback in the league in 2020, per Pro-Football-Reference. Yes, more often than either of Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson, both of whom have become sob stories throughout the league for not having enough protection.
Then, for all the people saying that he doesn’t do enough to avoid the hits, it’s hard not to get hit when you have the third highest pressure rate in the NFL. Opponents generated pressure on 30.9% of Cousins’ dropbacks, only behind Alex Smith and Nick Mullens. It’s also worth noting that Smith and Mullens had about half the pass attempts that Cousins did, so their sample size is much lower.
This article isn’t supposed to be about Cousins, but these stats just show that it would have been hard for anyone to succeed in Minnesota last season.
As for 2021, let’s look at some of last season’s stats for Minnesota’s upcoming opponents. It’s pretty terrifying if you break it down. The Vikings found difficulty against teams that blitzed a lot last season, ala Tampa Bay. Well, the Vikings play three teams next season that blitzed more often than Tampa Bay did in 2020: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Arizona. When you take into account that Arizona just acquired J.J. Watt, they could bring pressure even more than they did last year.
Minnesota also plays eight games against teams that ranked in the top half of the NFL in sacks. If you want to go just one spot further, the Bears ranked 17th in sacks, making ten games against opponents in the top-17. The Vikings played only six games in 2020 against opponents of this caliber. Next season’s opponents appear to be a tier above 2020’s in terms of pass rush.
I realize it isn’t news to say that the Vikings need to improve their offensive line. Everyone and their neighbor has been shouting the same thing for a few years now. The fact that this has been an issue for so long is exactly what scares me, though. If the Vikings don’t fix their line’s issues, they will go against a gauntlet of what should be great pass-rushing teams in 2021 with no way to keep them off of Cousins.
With so much of the Vikings’ offense relying on the health of Cousins and Cook, this lack of protection could open a whole new can of issues if either of them were to miss time. We saw how bad the Vikings offense was against Atlanta without Cook last year, and the Vikings have notoriously had inadequate backups to Cousins. It’s time to finally fix this line, so they are prepared to go up against such a difficult schedule in 2021.