He isn’t showing up on the wrong end of “SportsCenter” highlights. He hasn’t yet been trending on Twitter during Vikings games. Fans have put away the torches and pitchforks and, at least for the moment, appear to be comfortable with this giant man remaining in their community.
Yes, Matt Kalil has kept a low profile throughout the first month of the season. For an offensive tackle, especially one who has been scrutinized as much as he has over the past two years, that is a good thing.
Through three games, Kalil has yet to be beaten for a sack and has allowed a pass rusher to touch quarterback Teddy Bridgewater just once. He knows he will have to keep it up over the long haul to keep his critics quiet, but his strong start is encouraging after a rocky 2014 season.
“Last year, I didn’t start off well and you start losing confidence in your ability,” Kalil said. “And other things came into play. It’s only three games, but it’s definitely a confidence-builder coming into this game.”
Sunday’s showdown with the undefeated Denver Broncos will present perhaps the season’s biggest challenge for Kalil and rookie right tackle T.J. Clemmings. The Broncos boast the league’s best edge-rushing duo in DeMarcus Ware, who was just named the AFC’s defensive player of the month, and Von Miller, who was an All-Pro outside linebacker in 2014.
“[Miller] probably has the quickest first step in football. And if he doesn’t have it, then 94 on the other side [Ware] does,” offensive coordinator Norv Turner said. “So it’s going to be a challenge for our guys.”
So far, Kalil has kept other teams’ best pass rushers in check. He neutralized San Francisco’s Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch in Week 1. He shut out Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah in Week 2. And last week, San Diego’s Melvin Ingram got by him to get one hit on Bridgewater, but that was it.
2014 was a season to forget
It was a drastically different start than a season ago, when he allowed three sacks and 14 total pressures in the first three games, according to Pro Football Focus. Kalil, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 draft, was beaten for 12 sacks in 2014, most among NFL offensive linemen.
Despite undergoing surgery before last season, his sore knees bothered him so much during the middle of last year that he had conversations with coach Mike Zimmer about the pain. But he ultimately decided to tough it out, starting all 16 games for the third time in his first three seasons.
Kalil concedes now that he was in a lot of pain, but he shrugged it off, saying, “I didn’t have a blown-out ACL or anything like that.”
It went mostly unnoticed that Kalil’s play started to stabilize down the stretch. Coincidentally, the turnaround occurred after his altercation with a fan outside of TCF Bank Stadium after a Week 12 loss to Green Bay. The video of Kalil knocking the man’s hat off made the rounds on the Internet. Then in the final five games last season, he was beaten for just one sack.
“It’s just about being a professional,” he said. “I think if you focus on the negative, things can go downhill. It probably could have gotten a lot worse. I gave it a nice push in the second half of the season. I still didn’t play as well as I wanted to, but I think I stopped burying myself in that hole.”
Better health, better technique
Kalil had arthroscopic surgery performed on both knees this offseason. He also reportedly underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy. He feels better than he has in a long time, and it has been reflected in his play.
He is performing with improved technique and his increased confidence shows. He has also played with an edge. Against the Lions, he was flagged for shoving a defender to the ground at the end of a running play. Zimmer wasn’t pleased that the unnecessary roughness penalty cost the Vikings 15 yards, but he did appreciate that Kalil was being a bully.
“I like the mindset,” he said. “I don’t like the penalty, but I like the mindset.”
Pushing around Ware, who usually lines up on the left, and Miller, who is typically on the right, won’t be as easy. The two have combined for 4 ½ sacks this season and are tied with each other for the league lead, according to Pro Football Focus, with 21 quarterback pressures apiece.
“They’re great pass rushers, Kalil said. “Obviously, DeMarcus Ware has played for a long time. Von’s had a lot of success. They both get a lot of sacks, so we definitely have our hands full against these guys.”
If Kalil can help keep those two at bay, the pitchforks can stay put away.