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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Tony Sparano setting a different tone for the Vikings offensive line

By Andrew Krammer

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Two days after the Vikings season ended on a missed 27-yard field goal, overhaul of the offensive line began.

Their top priority was clear. An improved offensive line was needed to push the team even farther after a first-round playoff exit. The Vikings spent in free agency, adding guard Alex Boone and tackle Andre Smith. Soon after, head coach Mike Zimmer sent a text to Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater stating, in part, ‘no excuses.’

The man he tabbed to enforce that approach for the offensive line is Tony Sparano, who spent four years (2003-2006) with Zimmer in Dallas coaching tight ends, linemen and coordinating the running game. Sparano accepted the job two days after the Vikings let go Jeff Davidson, saying the 2015 tape didn’t scare him off as they return center John Sullivan and tackle Phil Loadholt to an 11-win team.

“I knew that we had to get some things going in a different direction with that group. And it wasn’t a complete group,” Sparano said. “In studying them, I felt like it’s a group that if they can make another jump here, we’d have a chance to be pretty good.”

Sparano, a 54-year-old former head coach of the Dolphins and Raiders, was brought in to make changes ranging from intangible to finely detailed. During spring practices, players adjusted to different techniques and “new wrinkles” in the offense, per Zimmer, after he hired two experienced coaches in Sparano and tight ends coach Pat Shurmur to assist in scheming.

Two voices, Sparano’s and Boone’s, lead the Vikings’ packed offensive line room of 16 players. They’re both an extension of Zimmer’s “mentality,” a disciplined, aggressive state of mind he’s preached since coming to Minnesota in 2014. Players have described Sparano as an open ear, once you show him the effort. Sparano said some were initially taken aback by his approach.

“He kind of set the tempo from the first day,” Boone said. “Which as an offensive line, I think is great. Your coach should always be the general. He’s the guy who sets the tempo for you and he laid it out. ‘Listen, no nonsense, we’re going to raise the bar this year.’”

Zimmer spent parts of a division-winning season willing the offensive line to take on a tougher approach. There were highs, when he awarded the game ball to Brandon Fusco, Joe Berger and Mike Harris after a Vikings win and 263 rushing yards in Oakland. But too often extended lulls followed, including game-losing sacks in Denver and Arizona.

Teddy Bridgewater was one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the NFL taking 45 sacks, tied for eighth-most, even though he attempted the fewest passes. The Vikings often relied on heavy protection sets that, in turn, took away targets from Bridgewater. Better five-man protections have been an emphasis under Sparano.

“He’s pretty hard-nosed, a guy you want to work hard for,” Fusco said. “He wants us to be physical, he wants us to have a nasty mentality out there — be the bully. He doesn’t want us to get pushed around out there. Obviously the sack numbers is something he harps on all the time, protect the quarterback. All those things.”

This spring, offensive linemen spent practice time running into blocking pads, under chutes and working techniques with defensive linemen. Sparano noticed some linemen beginning to push back against the Vikings’ D-line, which is “known around the league as a bunch of relentless guys,” Boone said.

“It’s different – I mean the way they work, the way they do things, everything is different,” Zimmer said. “It’s a different mentality, a different work ethic…So all of that stuff I like, I like it.”

One of Sparano’s most important reclamation projects is left tackle Matt Kalil, who enters a contract season. The Vikings retained Kalil at the expensive $11.096 million set by the fifth-year option on his rookie deal. He’ll have at least 16 more games to earn a long-term contract in Minnesota, where he’s set to be married in July.

Starting that on-field process, Sparano — a self-described “no-nonsense guy” who “doesn’t believe a lot in excuses” — said he’s begun to sense the best teaching style for Kalil, who is a calmer personality than the boisterous Boone.

“Just try to reinforce the positive things while we’re out here,” Sparano said. “Each day had a little bit more success and started to feel a little bit better about himself and has bought in to what we’re asking him to do.”

Kalil, who turns 27 in July, had felt he got his knees right before last season, though his play still wasn’t consistent enough for what his left tackle position demands. He allowed 33 quarterback hurries, according to Pro Football Focus, the third-most along last year’s porous front.

For the first time since 2013, Kalil enjoyed a surgery-free offseason. He missed some early work, but practiced most of OTAs and all of mandatory minicamp under Sparano.

“He’s definitely going to push me this year,” Kalil said. “And I feel he’s going to give me that extra edge I need to take the next step again and be where I want to be…Working on little things like technique, hand placement, speed, quickness and all that. I think I’m in a good spot, probably better than I have been in a while.”

Offensive line competition will dominate much of the focus during training camp. Phil Loadholt and Andre Smith started this spring by swapping reps at first-team right tackle. Right guard will heat up under Fusco should Mike Harris report to camp healthy. And Sullivan is out to prove he’s fully recovered from his first-ever back operations last fall.

Development of the rest will be just as important as only half (8 of 16) of the offensive linemen are signed beyond this season. One of those players is second-year tackle T.J. Clemmings, who started 17 games as a fourth-round rookie. Now he’s being groomed at both left and right tackle with the second- and third-team offenses.

The 24-year-old Clemmings said Sparano has been thorough.

“He teaches us and he spends time with us,” Clemmings said. “You go into his office, his door’s always open, there’s no bad time. That’s a big deal when you just want to sit down and make sure you understand something. And he makes sure you get it before he lets you leave the room. So that’s a nice thing about him.”

This young team has high expectations after claiming the NFC North title in Green Bay and narrowly losing to the Seattle Seahawks. They have to start “immediately,” Peterson said, to satisfy his itch for a couple Super Bowls. Those are uncharted waters in Minnesota, and the biggest change in hopes of achieving that may come from the Vikings offensive line.

“I demand a lot from them,” Sparano said. “My experiences have been in this league, when you demand a lot from them, you know, they’ll give it to you. What I’ve seen out here has not disappointed me.”

The post Tony Sparano setting a different tone for the Vikings offensive line appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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