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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Change at center helped Falcons, Vikings bounce back from collapses

By Matthew Coller

The Minnesota Vikings’ fall from 5-0 to 8-8 in 2016 had a lot of similarities with the Atlanta Falcons’ collapse from 5-0 to 8-8 the previous season.

Both had first-time head coaches. Both had were disappointing on offense. And both added centers who played a role in taking their offenses to the next level.

Atlanta’s 2015 offense ranked 21st in points despite having a top-notch quarterback in Matt Ryan and talent at the skill positions – namely Julio Jones and running back Devonta Freeman.

The ‘15 Falcons didn’t need an entire overhaul up front like the Vikings did- they had the foundation of a quality offensive line starting with left tackle Jake Matthews – but they were missing a quality man in the middle. Journeyman center Michael Person started 14 games that year – the only 14 starts of his career.

So the Falcons signed former Browns star center Alex Mack to a five-year, $45 million contract. Mack currently ranks as Pro Football Focus’s No. 2 center.

Of course, he wasn’t the only reason the Falcons’ offense shot from 21st to No. 1 in the NFL in scoring in 2016, but Mack especially played a role in the Falcons jumping from 3.8 yards per carry in ‘15 to 4.6 in 2016. He was also key in pass protection.

Leading up to the Super Bowl, Bleacher Report called him the most important player in the game for the Falcons.

“We joke around with him about being a genius,” Falcons fullback Patrick DiMarco told Bleacher Report. “He understands the offense and knows football at another level. He’s making all of our calls along the line. That takes so much off of Matt.”

“Over the last few years, Matt had to make the ‘Mike’ calls, tell the line what to do and called hot routes. When Mack first arrived, he said, ‘Hey, Matt. You worry about the coverage. I got the protection.’ It’s shown and taken so much off of Ryan’s shoulders. He can now be himself and attack defenses.”

Vikings center Pat Elflein has had a similar impact on his team’s offense, which ranked 23rd in points last year and eighth this season. He’s been a driver of the Vikings’ short passing success, which was especially evident against the Lions when the Vikings gained 70 yards on throws behind the line of scrimmage.

“Pat is at the top of his game,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “He’s not playing like a rookie. He’s getting us lined up, he’s helping me, he’s helping the offensive line, doing a great job of identifying fronts and pressures, not just pass-game protection, but run game as well. He’s a great player.”

The Vikings traded up in the third round to get Elflein. During training camp he battled with eventual left guard Nick Easton for the starting spot. Elflein’s presence allowed offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur to create an identity for the Vikings’ offense. It also let them move quality interior veteran Joe Berger to right guard.

Elflein doesn’t have the PFF grades that Mack is currently sporting, but part of that is him adapting to facing elite interior D-linemen like Baltimore’s Brandon Williams. Head coach Mike Zimmer has been impressed by the way he’s handled the league’s biggest beasts.

“I think the biggest thing is when he gets up against some of these bigger, more physical nose tackles that he’s able to use his strength a little bit more,” Zimmer said. “He’s obviously great quickness getting to the perimeter and getting to the second level. He just keeps doing a great job.”

Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings No. 1 in the NFL in Adjusted Sack Rate and the Vikings have the sixth most rushing yards in the NFL and rank third in runs of more than 20 yards.

Both head coaches have said that changes in personnel weren’t the only reason for their respective turnarounds. They also learned from the mistakes of the past.

“I learned a ton,” head coach Dan Quinn said. “Going through it, it really makes you trust the process that you go through to get ready. When you don’t play well, sometimes you can overthink it and ‘let’s change this, let’s change that.’”

Like the Vikings, the Falcons have overcome some adversity this year. Atlanta went through a three-game losing streak, but has gotten hot lately, winning their last three.

“It definitely made for resiliency,” Quinn said. “Bummer that we had to go through it but at the end of it I think we grew from it.”

The post Change at center helped Falcons, Vikings bounce back from collapses appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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