Monday, July 11, 2016

It All Starts Up Front: Improving The Offensive Line

Photo Courtesy of Star Tribune
Entering training camp, there is one position group every coach, fan, and writer will have their eyes on. Daniel House evaluates the offensive line and tells you how the unit can improve in 2016.

Updated: July 11th, 2016 4:45pm

By: Daniel House

Entering training camp, there is one position group every coach, fan, and writer will have their eyes on. The Vikings offensive line was abysmal in almost every category last season. In 2015, quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was pressured on a whopping 46.7% of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus. No quarterback faced more duress in the entire league. The offensive line couldn't handle any pressure that forced them to hold their blocks. Much of the offensive line issues contributed to the poor play the Vikings faced on offense. With the injuries of John Sullivan and Phil Loadholt early last season, an already depleted group of offensive lineman faced an uphill battle. T.J. Clemmings was forced into a starting role with limited experience and Matt Kalil/Brandon Fusco performed poorly. It was a recipe for a disaster. However, a few additions and a position coaching change should help the offensive line improve going into 2016.

Rushing Lanes 

Despite all of the struggles in pass protection, the Vikings offensive line still managed to pave the way for Adrian Peterson to win another league rushing title. Nonetheless, much of the rushing lanes that were created came from the pure talent of Adrian Peterson himself. There were moments where Peterson danced too much because defenders were in the backfield before he even received the ball from Bridgewater. The Vikings sometimes were forced to bring in an extra tight end to not just chip, but block off the edge. Free agent Alex Boone should help improve the Vikings running attack on the left side. Last season, the 49ers had the fifth-most (in NFL) runs of 10+ yards when running on Boone's side of the field. Additionally, they had the ninth-fewest negative rushing plays in the league on his side. Boone is going to be the enforcer of the offensive line and his ferocious tenacity will hopefully rub off onto other offensive lineman on the roster.

In this play, both T.J. Clemmings and Brandon Fusco can't anchor down and hold their blocks. The inability to hold blocks and establish position has been a reoccurring theme when watching multiple games of tape on Fusco.

Now, here is an example of brilliant blocking up front. Clemmings seals off the defender and Berger helps create a nice lane for McKinnon. Not to mention, Rhett Ellison makes the final block late in the run that springs the short touchdown run. This is again another example of the athleticism and cutback ability of a pure player like McKinnon. This run even came under center, which further advocates why he needs a shot to be a number one running back in the future.

The below video is the other example of Fusco being unable to hold his block long enough for Peterson to make his way through the rushing lane. Fusco had so much trouble establishing strength over the opposing defender, while setting an anchor. Some of this might be attributed to being less than a season removed from a major pectoral injury.

7-Step Drop

Part of the problem with the Vikings passing game can be attributed to Norv Turner's 7-step drop frequency in the offense. Minnesota was near the top of the league in total 7-step drops. The amount of time the offensive line was forced to hold their blocks, combined with all the slow developing routes, isn't a recipe for success. The Vikings offensive line allowed the sixth-most sacks (45) and a tenth-most 96 quarterback hits. Teddy Bridgewater needs to get in a rhythm through short passing, which helps open up more throws vertically. Of course, striving for better protection in 7-step drops is necessary and should be expected. However, that style of play doesn't best suit the skill-set of the auxiliary pieces in the offense. If the offense keeps the same philosophy the overall protection will need to drastically improve. The ultimate way to see growth with this passing game would be to implement more shotgun/pistol looks that feature Teddy Bridgewater's skill-set. Not to mention, it would allow the Vikings to unleash the athleticism of a player like Jerick McKinnon in their offense. With Adrian Peterson's limited ability in the shotgun, the Vikings are forced to run an offense that doesn't maximize the potential of their athletes. However, finding a balance between the run and pass would go a long way towards improving the Vikings overall cohesiveness and success as a unit.

How do they improve?

With Alex Boone on the left side to help Kalil and Phil Loadholt or Andre Smith taking over on the right, there should be more resources available to improve in pass protection. T.J. Clemmings needed plenty of help last year and that really limited what the Vikings could run offensively. Not to mention, Brandon Fusco and Matt Kalil struggled in every aspect of their games. Kalil had trouble even getting a solid punch off the line of scrimmage. He wasn't staying on his feet and couldn't get balanced coming out of his stance either. There were several instances where he barely made contact with the opposing defensive end as he fell to the ground.

This effort from the Cardinals game particularly comes to mind. Matt Kalil can't handle a skilled finesse spin move from veteran Dwight Freeney. He is literally thrown to the side as he can't reach balance and punch Freeney. Kalil can't force him from making a move inside and it was the end of the Vikings comeback chance in that game.

Regarding Brandon Fusco, much of the trouble starts with his lack of strength. Defensive lineman were outmuscling him off of the line of scrimmage. There were times Fusco was plastered onto his back or shoved out of the way at the point of contact. Here he allows inside pressure that overloads the left side of the offensive line. He trips but that is because he was trying to recover from allowing so much inside pressure.

This is an example of that:

The only two reliable players on the offensive line were unexpected contributors. Mike Harris and Joe Berger played at a very underrated level in 2016. When running on the right side towards Mike Harris, the Vikings led the league in rushes of 10+ yards. Additionally, when running up the middle, Minnesota was second in the same category. Berger and Harris both contributed to these high statistics.

Conversely, the Vikings had the ninth-fewest rushes of 10+ yards when running to the left side of the field. This should be clear when seeing the stark contrast of highlight film I have selected from games in 2015. When a person breaks down the statistics, they will see the glaring problem is on the left side of the offensive line. Adding Alex Boone will solidify the left guard spot and improve the running game, but the two biggest keys will be how Matt Kalil performs at left tackle and whether Brandon Fusco improves as he shifts back to the right side. T.J. Clemmings won't start, but the big point of evaluation will be the battle between free agent signing Andre Smith and Phil Loadholt. If Kalil struggles, Boone could kick out to left tackle and Harris might slide into left guard. Even Brandon Fusco isn't safe and Mike Harris could win the job outright if Fusco has trouble in the preseason. There is more flexibility this year with more capable bodies on the offensive line unit.

However, plays like these on the left side from Matt Kalil can't happen. Any type of speed rusher Kalil faced posed problems. He may have gotten slightly better as the season progressed, but this still happened in week 17. His technique needs to be refined and he must be quicker out of his stance. His punch is delayed and he is letting the defensive edge rusher control him.

Durability of Loadholt/Sullivan

John Sullivan is returning from major back surgery and Phil Loadholt is recovering from a torn achilles last August. Many people are favoring both of these veterans to grab the starting jobs. I'm not certain that will be the case. During OTAs, Norv Turner voiced that Loadholt had to keep getting better if he wanted to start. I think both of these injuries will be more critical than anyone is letting on. They might be able to begin the season, but how durable will they be? Back injuries can have a huge impact on leverage. In addition, putting wait on your achilles and handling the force of opposing defensive lineman isn't easy either. The haul of a 16-game season might not allow Loadholt and Sullivan to contribute at the level necessary to win the starting nod. Both Andre Smith and Joe Berger are logical options to challenge them for a roster. It all will come down to how each of those players handle the rigors of training camp. However, I do believe the new coaching philosophy within this unity will emphasize competition over continuity. 

Sparano Running The Show

Tony Sparano will preach the importance of physicality and technique among the offensive line unit. Each of those attributes were missing recently from previous offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. He valued continuity and he didn't seem to focus on the details. Sparano will push his players and isn't afraid to bench a player if they aren't getting the job done. With more coaching and the returning presence of John Sullivan, Phil Loadholt, and free agent signee Alex Boone, the culture change is going to be noticeable from this group. That is the overall key to seeing a change in the identity of the Vikings offensive line.

Where does the depth come from?

The depth will be better this season as the Vikings have invested over 28% of their cap space into improving the offensive line. The Vikings completed trades to acquire Nick Easton and Jeremiah Sirles last season and they will both receive reps in camp. Austin Shepherd really showed his versatility and strong skill-set in a limited role last season. He is a player that can be developed into a potential product for the future. The Vikings selected Willie Beavers in the fourth round of the draft and it is hard to see him going anywhere. Especially since Tony Sparano voiced him as being a player that could be developed in his scheme. After watching his tape, he has plenty of work to do before he is ready to contribute to this squad consistently. T.J. Clemmings needs more time to develop and he is very responsive to coaching, which will keep him around on this team. It seems likely either Phil Loadholt or John Sullivan will be a training camp cut to keep depth that is necessary for the future of the team. Right now, it seems Phil Loadholt might be the odd man out, but it will be tough to know until training camp practices take place. The competition for the final spots on this team will be highly contested and that means the coaches will work hard in the trenches during training camp and the preseason to find the best mix. Nobody (aside from Boone) will have a locked roster spot among this unit.

Projected Starters:

LT- Matt Kalil
LG- Alex Boone
C- Joe Berger
RG- Mike Harris
RT- Andre Smith


Brandon Fusco
Austin Shepherd
John Sullivan
T.J. Clemmings
Willie Beavers

Certainly the Vikings offense will need improvement from the offensive line in order to take the next step and find balance as a unit. With more competition and a new coaching change, this position group will be worth evaluating on a consistent basis when the pads come on at training camp.


  1. So Easton and Sirles get cut? I hope not. I want to see more younger guys.

    1. I just think drafting Willie Beavers isn't a sound endorsement for either of those guys. Maybe Fusco and Sullivan get cut and Sirles or Easton slide onto the roster.

  2. Kind of see it the way you do due to Sully & Loadholt breaking down. That means at end of season Vikes have no starting Offensive Tackle under contract(Kalil & Smith) and a 34 year Old starting center (Berger). Ouch that's not the stuff Superbowl windows are made of.

    1. It definitely will make structuring the offensive line more difficult this year. They have to keep the future in mind now.