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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Offensive line review: Jake Long arrives just in time

By Matthew Coller

If there’s one weakness for the Minnesota Vikings, it’s the offensive line. At this point in the season, it’s impossible to deny the talents of their recently traded-for signal caller, and the defense not only has Pro Bowl talents at every level but a coherent scheme that makes them even more than the sum of their impressive parts.

Should the Vikings drop a game in the near future, it will likely be because the offensive line found ways to kill drives or force turnovers. This last week against Houston may seem like a better performance than some earlier ones in the season with a cursory glance, but it was probably the worst performance the offensive line has put together all year.

The good news is that the two biggest offenders—Zac Kerin and T.J. Clemmings—won’t likely be starting against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 7 or, if the line finds a way to stay healthy, the rest of the season.

Pass Protection

If Bradford was under less pressure than usual and running backs seemed to average more yards per carry in this game than any other game this season, why was it the worst performance of the year?

Because the Vikings gimmicked their way out of pressure in a way they haven’t before and won’t need to once Jake Long is ready to start and Brandon Fusco clears the concussion protocol.

Despite that, Minnesota found itself under pressure much more often than it should have.

Last year, the Vikings invited pressure onto the quarterback by designing more seven-step drops per pass than any other team in the league. Those long drops exacerbated the offensive line issues and was a big reason that Bridgewater was pressured more than any other quarterback in the league, more than 46 percent of his snaps.

This year, Bradford’s pressure rate is 35.3 percent, though without the Giants game is 39.7 percent. That’s not nearly as high as last year, but is still pretty high relative to the rest of the league.

This isn’t necessarily because the line is playing better; the Vikings this year have expanded the number of three-step drops in their offense in the first three weeks from eight percent to 42.9 percent. They increased the number of rollouts, screens, “now” throws and three-step drops from 21 percent (fifth-fewest in the league) to 53.3 percent in the first three weeks—which would have ranked as the most in the league last year.

That’s a massive shift in playcalling that should have resulted in a dip in pressure rate greater than seven percent, but it definitely helped; sacks turned into hits and hits into mere hurries.

Those numbers have all been covered before, but we needed to rehash them again in order to emphasize how much of a seismic shift we saw in the game against Houston.

The Vikings threw “quick” (screens, rollouts and three-step drops) on 81.2 percent of their passing dropbacks.

Even the most screen-happy, quickest-throwing offenses in the league last year didn’t come close to touching that rate; Kansas City led the league by a good margin with 41 percent of their throws coming on quick passes.

This massive shift should have protected Bradford immensely; and even a poor offensive line should have given up pressure on only 25 percent of snaps—if that. Instead, I logged 13 snaps under pressure and Pro Football Focus logged 12. That’s between 35 and 38 percent, a bad number for a normal offense and one of the worst you can possibly imagine for one that got the ball out of Bradford’s hands almost instantly.

If the offensive line allowed pressure at the same rate they did on each type of dropback—screens, three-step drops, five-step drops, seven-step drops and so on—but in the proportion of plays they ran last year, the Vikings would have allowed pressure on 70 percent of dropbacks, a number so high as to be unbelievable.

As it is, I’ve never seen an offense give up pressure on half of their three-step drops or on 83 percent of their five-step drops. They even allowed two pressures on their 13 “now” plays! In fairness, they were unblocked pressures that were schemed open with no particular linemen at fault, but they both resulted in hits on Bradford, so it’s worth counting.

Not only that, but it was clear on two other “now” snaps that if the play was actually a three-step drop, Bradford would have been hit or sacked.

The lineman most at fault was Zac Kerin, who replaced Brandon Fusco early in the game after a concussion attempting to block Jadeveon Clowney took Fusco out of the game. As a pass protector, I noted five blocking failures for Kerin on 34 dropbacks, a stunning 14 percent rate. Most of these plays were the result of losing the physical battle at the snap instead of miscommunication, though he did have issues with that as well (mostly in the run game).

After him, Clemmings caused serious problems as a pass protector, though his total pressure rate was lowered due to several factors—on some plays, Kyle Rudolph took on an edge defender one-on-one, and on one snap Clemmings would have given up a hit had the play not been a “now” screen and at least a three-step drop.

It was a poor day for Clemmings, but the gulf between he and Kerin is pretty large.

As for the other linemen, only Alex Boone was clean in pass protection, though he did get lucky on one snap when he was beaten right away on a one-step drop and would likely have given up a sack on any other play. He also almost gave up pressure on a different snap but recovered beautifully and helped maintain a clean pocket. Not only that, he helped prevent pressure given up by Clemmings by looking for work and taking out a linebacker that had already beaten Clemmings.

Boone has now strung together a few good games in a way that better fits his reputation than his level of play in previous games.

Joe Berger, unfortunately, was not up to his usual standard and lost twice to an admittedly powerful Vince Wilfork. There was one instance of a protection failure that could have been Kerin’s fault as a result of miscommunication as well as a play where he recovered to keep the quarterback clean, but that second play still featured a defender bearing down on a quarterback who was diverted at the last second, so it still counts as a pressure.

Jeremiah Sirles certainly performed better in this game than Andre Smith had done for the Vikings in previous games, but that is by no means an amazing standard. The raw number of pressures he clearly gave up is the same as Clemmings, but it’s not quite the same performance.

The first distinction is that Sirles received significantly less help than Clemmings and dealt with edge-rushers the entire game. Not only that, he had fewer chips from tight ends and running backs to slow down rushers and benefited from less guard help late in the snap.

Not only that, he had fewer “almost” snaps where he would have given up pressure on a standard play. There was one instance where a quick release saved Bradford (and led to a touchdown) when Sirles did a poor job riding out the arc—a technique that typically uses a defensive player’s momentum against himself by forcing him to rush too wide of his intended target. In this case, Sirles led the player almost directly into Bradford.

It wasn’t a very good game in pass protection from him, but it was at least manageable.

The biggest problem here is not just that the offensive line found a way to give up pressure in perhaps the easiest pressure environment they’ll get all year, it’s that the Vikings cannot provide this environment on a consistent basis.

Even if they succeed in future games in preventing pressure from getting to the quarterback, they’ll be forced to rely on a harried, quick-passing game that will look exactly like the Giants’ game plan against the Vikings: an ostensibly low-pressure environment for Manning that should have allowed easy completions, but whose predictability doomed them in the end.

Adding competency in pass blocking will ensure a greater variety of offensive strategy and allow the Vikings to more completely attack multiple levels of the defense.

Run Blocking

For as manageable as one can make things in the running game, it may be the case that it is more difficult to hide one’s poor play. Clemmings was subpar but ultimately something one could deal with as a pass protector last Sunday, but as a run blocker was absolutely abysmal.

Of the 35 running plays the Vikings featured, Clemmings was a liability on at least nine of them, allowing most of Clemmings ridiculously impressive six stops (four for loss, though not all of it was on Clemmings) and several run-blocking failures besides.

Clemmings sometimes lost immediately at the snap, resulting on one occasion in a six yard loss. As bad as Kerin was as a pass protector, Clemmings might have been in the run game. Constantly whiffing on opposing linemen makes things difficult for the offense to perform at any level.

On the other hand, his teammate lined up next to him did a fine job in the run game, with only about two significant problems throughout the game on individual plays and a number of standout plays where he creates additional running room or hits difficult moving targets on the second level.

Boone is beginning to justify his offseason hype—after damaging it a little bit with spotty performances early in the season. He’s run-blocking well and doing his part in keeping the pocket relatively clean.

Joe Berger’s game as a run blocker doesn’t deserve unusual criticism or praise; there were more high notes than low notes, but nothing that particularly seems worthy of serious criticism (or long-term potential upside) even though he occasionally allowed some run defeats. It was relatively expected and he performed somewhat below those expectations but not alarmingly so.

The biggest problem with this is that it takes a staple play out of the offense; an inside-zone run is one of the most common plays in football, but without a clear A gap (the gap between a center and a guard), the play can die right away.

There were times that McKinnon did make the wrong decision in light of this A gap problem (notably one of the last runs of the game, when it didn’t seem to matter), but there isn’t much of a chance of a run gaining yardage if one cedes the primary gap.

As a run blocker, I didn’t see much room for criticism for Zac Kerin. Though he was an astonishing problem in the pass protection game, he didn’t log too many poor snaps as a run blocker, though it didn’t seem as if his assignments were uniquely difficult for a guard, without as much pulling as there would have been if Brandon Fusco was there.

Still, it’s good to see that at least one dimension of the game was pretty good, because it shows that things are more fixable for him in the short term than perhaps for someone like Clemmings, who was much less of an issue in pass protection than Kerin, but was still a problem.

Jeremiah Sirles had a bigger problem with penalty flags (two false starts) than he was in the running game, and Sirles had more issues with difficult reach blocks than he did on base blocks. Sirles wasn’t spectacular as a run blocker like we may remember from 2013 Brandon Fusco or 2015 Alex Boone, but he was functional.

There were occasional mistakes from Sirles and Kerin in the run game, and more than the usual amount from Berger and those mistakes—along with the consistent and repeated errors from Clemmings—clearly had a much bigger role to play than Jerick McKinnon or Matt Asiata’s natural running ability did on the run game.

While it’s true that McKinnon could have made a different decision here or there (and honestly, there are only two instances where it seems like McKinnon left yards on the field) or that Asiata’s athleticism may have limited him, the biggest blame clearly relies on an offensive line that is wholly at fault for the negative yardage in the run game.

That’s not always the case with the running backs—when Peterson has felt confident, he’s moved backwards in order to find ground elsewhere and occasionally lost yardage as a result—but was clearly the case in this game. Without negative yardage, McKinnon would have gained 1.5 yards more a carry.

Compare that to the rest of the NFL, where running backs gain 0.9 yards a carry.

Or consider the fact that McKinnon lost 1.6 yards a carry when running to his left versus anywhere else. Or that he averaged -1.2 yards a carry when Clowney tackled him; he gained over three yards when it was anybody else.

None of this is to say that the running game would have been completely fixed without T.J. Clemmings; in all of these splits, the more favorable running efficiency is still well below league average. But despite the fact that we concluded that both Adrian Peterson and the offensive line were at fault for early struggles in running efficiency, it seems likely that the majority of the blame with this running game has more to do with the individual problems of the offensive line.

After all, the Vikings have the second-worst rate of tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the running game.

McKinnon’s yards after contact (1.9 per carry) is still below the NFL average (2.2), but it is significantly better than Asiata’s and Peterson’s (1.5).

Those numbers aren’t definitive, but paired with a review of McKinnon’s game, the available evidence leads me to believe that the failure of the running game can be pinned more completely on the offensive line than on the performance of the individual running backs.

Thankfully, the two biggest contributors to the lackluster performance will likely be on the bench as the Vikings play their most defensively fierce opponent yet, the Philadelphia Eagles.

Shoring up one side of the line with Jake Long—even a much-reduced Jake Long—should allow the Vikings to implement a more complete running attack. As Brandon Fusco potentially returns from the concussion he suffered, Minnesota may also be able to implement more sets with pulling guards and not be limited to inside or outside zone plays.

This diversity, like in the passing game, should give the Vikings more options to attack and won’t continue to result in losses behind the line as defenses read the play before the ball is even snapped.

The post Offensive line review: Jake Long arrives just in time appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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