It’s common consensus that the 2016 Vikings were done in by futility among their offensive line. Matt Kalil turned to Jake Long turned to T.J. Clemmings, while Phil Loadholt’s setback brought along Andre Smith who quickly gave way to Jeremiah Sirles. And that was just the tackles. Over the offseason, the Vikings took expensive and well-documented steps to shore up the biggest men of the offense. Enter Riley Reiff, Mike Remmers, and Pat Elflein, as well as some camp battle shuffling which resulted in a new starter at each of the five OL positions.
Things have undoubtedly improved, though, there’s nowhere else they could really go. But how much have things improved? At the halfway point in the season, it makes sense to pull out exactly which problems were worst, and which solutions have had the most impact, if at all.
A quick assessment of the 2016 line is necessary to establish context – for these purposes, we’ll count the line as Clemmings, Boone, Berger, Fusco and Sirles, all of whom played more than 70% of the snaps on the season. While Andre Smith, Matt Kalil and others took snaps as well, for simplicity’s sake, we can leave off their minor contributions.
We’ll look at pressures allowed (any sack, hit or hurry), pass blocking efficiency (the same thing but per-snap and weighted toward sacks) and PFF grades in pass blocking for good measure. For run, we’ll look at success rate behind that position and run blocking PFF grades to compare.
|2016||Run Success||Run grade||Pressures||PBE||Pass Grade|
Clemmings was clearly holding the team hostage to a degree with 58 total pressures. That’s equivalent to about four bad games for a whole unit, and that’s just one guy. Fusco and Sirles similarly struggled, while Berger and Boone were relative bright spots. That was discussed ad nauseam throughout the offseason, and doesn’t challenge the general perception. It offers a nice comparison point to 2017’s numbers:
|2017||Run Success||Run grade||Pressures||PBE||Pass Grade|
Through 8 games, the worst pressure-allower (Riley Reiff) is on pace to equal the third worst from 2016. And even then, it’s not black and white – PFF’s graders see him as the second best pass protecting lineman. While Easton and Elflein have both struggled in the run per PFF’s graders, seven of the ten grades are above 70, as opposed to one in 2016. It’s not a perfect line, but it has improved by a wide margin.
Perhaps the Vikings miss Alex Boone, but it was fairly clear that decision wasn’t made with merit-based calculations in mind.
It should be explained that it’s not abnormal for some of these stats to conflict with each other. PFF’s graders may give, say, Nick Easton a bad grade on his block, but since it was a quick throw or a screen or what have you, not log a pressure allowed. Conversely, Riley Reiff can play very well, but still be assigned a pressure due to Case Keenum processing slowly or a quirk of play design. It’s helpful to look at both, and consume these stats with some level of thoughtfulness.
One interesting case is the position move of Joe Berger, who has regressed a bit. This would have been hard to avoid even without the switch, considering Berger’s age and the level to which he was over-performing in 2015 and 2016. Moving him back to center is worth sparing a bye week thought, but moving Elflein to RG or starting Isidora may not result in a net positive.
In terms of run blocking, the line has improved a little, but not much. Dalvin Cook did his best to mitigate that issue, but expect this year’s success rates to decline as Cook’s games get watered down by Murray and McKinnon. Neither is playing awfully per se, but neither is Dalvin Cook.
On the whole, the 2016 Vikings allowed to 198 pressures. This year, they’re on pace to allow 150, decidedly average. Shaving a quarter off the pressure totals is a huge win for Spielman’s efforts. It was often opined that an average pass blocking line was enough, and that theory has accurately materialized.
Sam Bradford in 2016 was hotly debated, but he was able to get rid of the ball incredibly quickly (too quickly, some may posit). ANY/A is a stat designed to punish players for sacks as well as evaluate yards, touchdowns, interceptions, etc., and importantly, not completion percentage. Bradford’s ANY/A when clean was 7.48, and only dropped to 7.18 under pressure, making him the 4th best pressure eraser in the league for 2016. He was able to mitigate his circumstances to a degree.
Case Keenum falls from 7.26 to 5.99 in the same circumstance, and about four times as affected by pressure. Put Keenum behind the 2016 line, and it’s unlikely that the team crosses .500 to this point, much less achieving 6-2 and dreaming of a deep playoff run. This also implies that Bradford’s week one walloping of the New Orleans Saints may not have been a fluke- shame we might not ever find out.
The Vikings’ 2017 passing game has been, at the very least, functional with a journeyman backup QB. While Diggs and Thielen have a lot to do with that, Rick Spielman’s overhaul of the offensive line has done a lot to cancel out the nightmare the Vikings are experiencing at the QB position, and it might have saved the 2017 season.
Thanks for reading!