The Minnesota Vikings have dug about as deep as they can into their roster to maintain the offensive line, after allocating plenty of offseason resources to the position on which their Super Bowl hope could hinge.
Two weeks ago, they even took a flier on an injury-waylaid veteran. Pressed up against the salary cap and hesitant to part with young players or more high draft picks after the steep price of acquiring quarterback Sam Bradford, they likely won’t be able to make a deal for another blocker before the trade deadline next week.
This group, then, is what the Vikings must work with in order to preserve Bradford’s health, let alone give him time to throw, and keep up a championship chase.
“I think it’s just playing better with what you have. I mean, what are you going to do? There’s not much you can do. It’s not like you’re going to go down to Carl’s Jr. and find somebody,” said left guard Alex Boone, perhaps unaware that the fast-food chain doesn’t have any locations close to Minnesota, where he is in his first season after signing as a free agent from San Francisco.
Bradford was sacked six times, losing fumbles on two of them , and intercepted once under pressure during a rough performance at Philadelphia that stuck the Vikings (5-1) with their first defeat and prompted coach Mike Zimmer to describe the line’s play as “soft.”
Jake Long, the former first overall pick in the 2008 draft who was picked up for depth the week before, was beaten for both strip sacks in limited time spelling T.J. Clemmings at left tackle. Right tackle Jeremiah Sirles had trouble, too, with the fierce outside rush the Eagles applied, using safety blitzes, wide-aligned outside linebackers or interior linemen on stunts.
“If Sam is getting hit, if Sam doesn’t feel comfortable back there, it’s our fault,” Sirles said. “It’s not one guy’s fault. It’s five guys’ fault. But we all took our turn.”
The blame for the problematic pressure transcended the front five, though. Running back Matt Asiata whiffed on a couple of attempts to pick up a blitzing defender. Bradford wasn’t his usual sharp self in the pocket, playing against his former team in a difficult environment for the visitors. The receivers, collectively, didn’t run routes as crisply as they had in the first five games.
“The mistakes that we made on Sunday, they’re all fixable,” Bradford said. “A lot of them were just mental mistakes. They’re things that we have done correctly the previous five weeks and just failed to execute or failed to do them correctly.”
Sometimes, linemen are just outrushed, or running backs are overpowered, either due to poor technique or an unfavorable matchup. Many times, though, an offense can prevent a sack or a hit or a pressure with better recognition of the rush and communication about how to handle it. The Eagles brought well-timed and well-disguised blitzes, and more than once had a free rusher in Bradford’s face.
“There’s so much that goes into protection,” right guard Brandon Fusco said. “You can’t always point to the offensive line, you know?”
When the Vikings play Monday at Chicago, they’ll be tasked with fending off some viable outside linebackers in Leonard Floyd, Pernell McPhee and Willie Young. That means Clemmings and Sirles, and Long if he continues to rotate in for one or both of them, will need to be on their game.
“When they put me in there, I’ve got to earn that trust and play better,” Long said.
The Vikings didn’t draft an offensive lineman until the fourth round, when they took guard Willie Beavers. He was released before the start of the regular season, before being added to the practice squad and elevated to the active roster after the injuries piled up.
They spent money, though, by signing Boone and right tackle Andre Smith. With Smith and left tackle Matt Kalil on injured reserve and another starter from last year, Mike Harris, out indefinitely with an illness, the Vikings have the third-highest allocation of their salary-cap figure to the offensive line in the league.
“You’re a professional,” Boone said. “You’re expected to do it.”
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