Friday, November 25, 2016

Offensive Line Problems Have Sacked The Vikings' Offense

Photo: Vikings.com

On October 12th, the Vikings sat at 5-and-0 entering the bye week with playoff hopes on the horizon. A flurry of injuries on the offensive line and a lapse in third down defense have the Vikings on the outside looking in.


Updated: November 21st, 2016 4:30pm

By: Daniel House


Photo: Inquisitr
The sun was setting at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 9th, 2016. "Skol" filled the air inside the Vikings' new home. Minnesota had just obliterated the Houston Texans for a 31-13 win. Fans exited the game chanting "5-and-0, 5-and-0." National television outlets were comparing the Minnesota defense to the 1985 Chicago Bears and the offense was beating teams with an efficient passing game. Analysts picked the Vikings as their Super Bowl team. Fans were calling the defense the "Zim Reapers" and all was well in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." Heck, I even thought the Vikings were for real. On October 12th I wrote: The Vikings’ 5-0 start is far from a fluke. They are winning games against quality opponents and have done it all with a high amount of adversity resting on their shoulders. 

How soon the tides changed. 

Photo: Pioneer Press
They have went through six different starting offensive line combinations. This doesn't take into account the numerous shuffles that have taken place during several games this season. The defense started allowing big plays and couldn't get off the field on third down. Injuries spread like wildfire in the Minnesota locker room.

Jake Long, Willie Beavers, Jeremiah Sirles, Nick Easton, and Zac Kerin have all graced their presence on the offensive line this year. The shuffling and lack of depth on the offensive line has provided a new level of adversity the Vikings haven't been capable of overcoming. The offense has been limited by constraints up front and it has forced the other units to play perfect football for the Vikings to come out on top.

Photo: Houston Chronicle
Prior to the Detroit game, the last time the Vikings used the same starting offensive line combination the previous week was Week 5 against the Houston Texans. Injuries have plagued this group since the first day they reported for training camp. Early in August, guard Mike Harris was placed on the NFI list with a head injury and hasn't sniffed the field since. Harris was a very solid play for the Vikings at right guard in 2015 and would have provided a positive boost to this offensive line with his versatility. Phil Loadholt retired before the season and then the injuries followed a few weeks later. By Week 3, Matt Kalil was placed on injury reserve with a hip injury and T.J. Clemmings was thrust into the starting role. In Week 5, Andre Smith suffered a season-ending injury and Jeremiah Sirles entered the lineup at right tackle. Out of the bye week, the Vikings signed tackle Jake Long and rotated him into the group at left tackle. He struggled and T.J. Clemmings re-entered the game. After a loss at Philadelphia, Clemmings moved to the right side of the offensive line and Long got the start at left tackle in Chicago. Next on the schedule were the Lions and Alex Boone missed the game with a concussion. Jeremiah Sirles was forced to play left guard and the Vikings had yet another combination on their offensive line. The Washington game resulted in more injuries up front, with Jake Long suffering a torn achilles tendon. Minnesota moved T.J. Clemmings back to left tackle and kicked Jeremiah Sirles to right tackle. This lineup remained the same during the Lions game on Thanksgiving, but Sirles left with a hip injury and center Joe Berger suffered concussion. By the end of the game, the Vikings had T.J. Clemmings at left tackle, Nick Easton at center, and rookie Willie Beavers at right tackle.

Photo: Pioneer Press
It's safe to say the Vikings have faced some serious adversity up front since August and they haven't been able to recover. This problem was rooted by the failure to adequately address the tackle position this offseason. The depth was depleted, and aside from the signing of Alex Boone, the offensive line didn't provide any legitimate options to begin with. Tony Sparano apparently pounded on the table for Willie Beavers when there were substantially better options available in the fourth round of this year's draft. Building the offensive line is one of the most important aspects of success in the NFL. Especially when you have a quarterback with limited mobility like Sam Bradford. Some of the teams with weak offensive line units have quarterbacks that can escape and create plays down the field with their arm or legs. The Dallas Cowboys are the perfect example of a team that invested properly into the offensive line. They selected an offensive lineman with their first round pick in three of their last six drafts and it has set them up for long-term success. It is hard to argue that the problems with Minnesota's offense aren't rooted in their personnel issues on the offensive line.

When the offensive line is incapable of protecting the quarterback, it is hard to force the ball up the field. Deep drops cannot be protected and it limits the amount of explosion you can have on offense. Pat Shurmur took over at offensive coordinator in early November and implemented a quick passing game into the scheme. It forces the wide receivers to settle into the soft spots of the coverage and create their yardage after the catch. Not to mention, Minnesota struggles to take a shot up the field because they can't create rushing lanes up front. The running game is averaging a measly 2.8 yards
per carry average. There hasn't been one game where the Vikings have ran the football well and it has placed a massive strain on the offense. The unit cannot be balanced because the opposing defense
Photo: Fox Sports
doesn't need to take the running game seriously. The play-action plays Minnesota uses hardly draw any attention. There have been moments where the Vikings haven't been able to pick up an inch during short yardage and the push from this patchwork offensive line has been practically non-existent.

What's more, according to ESPN Stats and Info, quarterback Sam Bradford's had an average target depth of 3.43 yards in the Thanksgiving loss to Detroit. The coaches are forced to run check downs and short routes because of the protection this offensive line can provide. It has made the Vikings offense so predictable and limits the success it can have. Sam Bradford has been efficient in the scheme for what he has to work with, but his total scope of work has been scaled back due to the limitations this team faces up front. When you can't run the ball or protect the quarterback for deep drops, it is hard to be successful. Offensive adaptations can only go so far. When Minnesota goes into the Wildcat formation, they will be running the ball 85% of the time. Additionally, when they go under center, it almost certainly signals a running play will follow. The offense has been significantly scaled back because of the personnel and the limited resources the Vikings have. The offensive line has blocked poorly, but the running backs aren't perfect either. There have been multiple situations where they have failed to rush through the correct lane. This offense lacks spunk in the running game and the passing game has fizzled out over the last six weeks.

The offensive deficiencies have also placed a strain on the the defense. Over three of their losses during the four-game losing streak, the opponent won the time of possession battle. The defense has been on the field substantially longer and several of the players seem to be playing through injuries. Anthony Barr hasn't been the same reliable tackler and Eric Kendricks has fought through a recent hip injury. Captain Munnerlyn hurt his ankle, which also impacted Minnesota's nickel defense for a few weeks. For the most part, the unit has performed well enough to win. Aside from a few lapses, they have kept the Vikings in games. In the first meeting at U.S. Bank Stadium, they allowed Matthew Stafford to march up the field and get the Lions into field goal range with just 23 seconds
Photo: FanSided
left on the clock. In the Thanksgiving Day game, the defense allowed the Lions to drive into field goal range after Jeff Locke pinned the Lions inside their own two-yard-line. Aside from the Eagles and Cardinals games, the Vikings have not been the same defense. They have allowed far too many big plays in critical moments. Their tackling has been suspect and opposing offensive units have produced late in the game against them. The real difference for the defense has come on third down. During the Vikings 1-and-5 drought, they have allowed opposing offensive units to convert on 42% of their third down tries. Though the five game winning streak, this percentage was 35.2%. In addition, during the three total matchups against the Bears and Lions, the Vikings have allowed conversions on 19 of the 42 third down opportunities (45%). Minnesota hasn't gotten off the field and it has drained their defense late in games. The offense has forced the Vikings defense to play a nearly perfect game. If the defense or special teams can't score, it really limits the entire team's ability to play complementary football. The defense has stepped up in numerous games, but they have had minor lapses throughout the 1-and-5 stretch. These lapses have been costly because the Vikings are forced to execute perfectly on defense in order to overcome their deficiencies on offense. The defense has allowed just 17.5 points per game and the third fewest yards per game. It is hard to blame them when the margin for error is so slim. One could argue the Vikings defense has played a major hand in four of their six total wins. The Houston and New York games are the only moments where the offense has solely played well enough for the Vikings to win.

I've received numerous emails asking: how do the Vikings overcome these obstacles?

Well, the damage has already been done. The Vikings are 1-3 in divisional games and 3-5 in NFC games. They sit at 6-5 with the Lions a game ahead of them in the division. Not to mention, Detroit holds the tiebreaker. The Vikings would need to go at least 4-1 in their final four games to flirt with the playoffs. They would probably even need help to make that happen. Winning the final games of the season will come down to whether the offense can find some explosion. They need to start pushing the ball up the field and running the ball better. However, with limited personnel on the offensive line and an offense with limitations, it is hard to see the Vikings pulling it together over the final five games. They continue to experience injury problems up front and it is difficult to find an offensive identity with personnel limitation lingering over one position group. Perhaps Adrian Peterson could return soon to give the Vikings' running game a boost, but I'm not sure this would be the solution either.

It's this simple: the offensive line has cast a cloud on every portion of this team. The lack of depth has proved costly for a team with so much promise throughout other portions of their roster.

2 comments:

  1. Great analysis. O line in shambles & Rash of injuries leave Vikings with no moves. I disagree about lack of resource allocation on O line over last few years. Clemmings (Rick) & Beavers (Sparano) were 2 valuable draft slot Mid Round resource misses. Clemmings at least made sense. WTF Sparano? Financially Big Fusco contract + Mid range Smith Contract shows Salary Cap resources were delivered. Kalil pick had to be made the way draft fell at that spot and Rick finessed an extra pick. Kalil at least always played on gamedays until the 2016 Armageddon took down almost all living Viking Offensive players weighing over 290 lbs. Kalil was average to below average but still a 50% miss pick that every draft analyst would have made. Vikes need to stay the course on draft process (Vikings drafts - some misses, but still built a strong young roster through good drafting. Key change needed - Target young ascending Offensive FA Lineman entering 2nd contract like they did on defense with Linval & Captain. The parade of older Offensive lineman starting decline (Boone) or hurt last contract guys like (Smith) is not the Viking way. Vikes will be knocking a ton of offensive line money off the books that will allow them to sign 1 or 2 ascending free agent linemen and target 1 or 2 value picks in 2nd 3rd or 4th rounds. They have 2 3rd round picks this year. I also think their young guys being forced to play real games at multiple positions makes them good DURABLE swing backups for the future. Great read Daniel. My not 2nd guess draft redo for 2016 - I thought and was sure Vikes would take Cody Whitehair at guard with 2nd round pick instaed of Mac Alexander. Mack will be good but Whitehair young and solid would look good in Purple today. Like reading your stuff.

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  2. Nice job Daniel. Have to admit I was a bit surprised we didn't address OL needs earlier in the draft. But looking at the depth chart prior to the start of the season we looked to be in good shape at OT signed Boone with Harris at RG Fusco could back up either side. Sullivan's return meant we had even more depth on the inside. At the time, it looked we would have to release a player who could start. Lest we forget rumours had Fusco traded to Chicago. The injuries this year have been monumental. People complaining we should have done this or that we're silent when we were 5-0 and really have no clue. There are no teams 4-5 players deep at tackle. Few have 3. Right now we have none. All due respect, but Clemmings just isn't good enough. Having to start Beavers is disturbing in and of itself adding that to Clemmings on the left is a recipe for failure. Add to that, Boone is limited and Fusco is average at best. The coaches can't scheme to overcome these shortcomings. Bradford has been amazing - playing out of his mind. If not we wouldn't be close in any of these. What concerns me is college just isn't producing many starting tackles. Looking at potential FA...not much available there either. Going to be interesting how they address this in the offseason -

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