Kevin O’Connell Claims the Shaky Unit Has Improved

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The Minnesota Vikings have been actively trying to get rid of their weaknesses throughout the offseason. Josh Oliver was signed to increase the rushing efficiency, Jordan Addison was drafted to have another dynamic weapon next to Justin Jefferson, and the whole defense changed with the hire of Brian Flores. But one unit stayed the same.

Kevin O’Connell Claims the Shaky Unit Has Improved

To the surprise of most, the Vikings haven’t touched their starting offensive line all year. The same group from left to right of Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, Ed Ingram, and Brian O’Neill will be the starting lineup on Sunday when the season kicks off against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

 Claims the Shaky Unit Has Improved
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The Bucs employ a scary defensive tackle, Vita Vea. One of the strongest players in the league will line up right where the Vikings struggle, on the line’s interior. The trio of Cleveland, Bradbury, and Ingram was a disaster in 2022. Quarterback Kirk Cousins was somehow the most-hit QB in the league despite having an elite tackle duo in front of him. In addition to that, the running offense was awful, and the linemen struggled to open holes.

But head coach Kevin O’Connell is pleased with that group and is confident in their improvement:

I think all three of those guys, the type of camp and how we feel about Blake [Brandel], truly being a guy that if called upon, can go in there and perform, I think there has been improvement across the board.

I think there’s more understanding of the nuances of technique, fundamentals, how we can help as coaches with scheme, some of the things we’re doing from a philosophical standpoint of how we’re allowing those guys to play with a little bit more clarity, confidence, and be that much more decisive with their initial steps and their initial movements, getting significant first touches and trying to allow that to end with a clean pocket and efficiency in the run game.

It’s not one of those things where the expectation is we’re just going to block everybody clean all season long but the hope is that we have improved, we can limit some of the negatives in the run and pass game that set us behind the eight ball last year at certain points of the season. And then it’s just about consistency. Can we go do it and figure out ways both schematically and our players just playing to their standards of how we can be competitive every week?

Kevin O’Connell
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Interestingly, O’Connell envisions improvement because of a higher comfort level within the scheme. A totally underrated aspect of football is that the player must be confident and comfortable to execute the play at a high level, and if they have to think first, they might be too slow and lose leverage against the defenders. The good news is that the blockers better understand each other in the second consecutive year playing in the same combination, but it is also their second season in the system.

Playing a higher percentage of 12 and 21 personnel can also benefit the players. Josh Oliver was brought in as a strong blocker, and the Vikings would be foolish to refuse to use his skills. His presence and ability to block defenders can help create double-teams inside, which will obviously help the guys against powerful defenders. The same can be said about C.J. Ham’s contract extension and the promise to use him more in O’Connell’s second year.

A better unit is the goal, which might be achieved with some help from the teammates and the coaches, but also because the players can improve. Ingram is entering his second season after going through some significant rookie struggles. A year-two jump is not only possible, but it might even be the likely outcome.

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Cleveland has improved each year of his professional career, and the college tackle is a dominant run blocker. Bradbury also has his strengths in the rushing game. That’s why it was strange that the running lanes just weren’t there in 2022.

Regardless of the potential improvements from the players and the help the scheme can provide, it is a really weird approach to just neglect to bring in help throughout the offseason when it is the clear and obvious weakness of the offensive unit.

Sunday will be a tough test against Vea, followed by the matchup with the Eagles and their defensive line with Fletcher Cox, Jordan Davis, and star rookie Jalen Carter. We will know if the line is just the same issue as always or if the decision-makers were right to keep the same guys after those two games.

Janik Eckardt is a football fan who likes numbers and stats. The Vikings became his favorite team despite their quarterback at the time, Christian Ponder. He is a walking soccer encyclopedia, loves watching sitcoms, and Classic rock is his music genre of choice. Follow him on Twitter if you like the Vikings: @JanikEckardt