The Minnesota Vikings are set to take on the Chicago Bears for a final regular season game during Week 18. With Kevin O’Connell suggesting his starters would take the field as they have the second seed still in play, it remains to be seen how long that group plays. For the offensive line, it’s a question about who is a starter.
Facing the Green Bay Packers last week in a matchup that could’ve ended a division rival’s season, the Vikings flopped in an ugly fashion. Aaron Rodgers made up for a lackluster Week 1 performance, and Justin Jefferson flopped in the worst possible way. While the Vikings lost on the scoreboard, their greatest loss may have come in the form of players protecting quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Starters Playing, but Who’s on the Line?
Starting center Garrett Bradbury remains out with a back issue, which has only worsened since he aggravated it in a car accident. Backup Austin Schlottmann lined up for a goal-line play following a forced turnover, and he was immediately taken off the field for an injury that sent him to the locker room. Not more than a series later, right tackle Brian O’Neill joined him.
With Schlottmann, the Vikings were looking at a backup center after he suffered a fractured fibula. He hadn’t been an ideal replacement at any point this season, but being unavailable was hardly a better outcome. O’Neill is one of the best right tackles in the league, and his calf injury had him being carted off and shrouded in uncertainty. By Thursday, it was revealed he had suffered an Achilles tear, and like Schlottmann, his season was over.
For Minnesota, the front line couldn’t be more critical. Cousins has been hit more than any other time in his career, and the sacks have followed. Despite Minnesota’s offensive line looking to have taken a step forward this season, they’ve left their signal caller on his back more often than not. Going into the playoffs, there is no denying that O’Connell needs his quarterback to remain upright.
With the free agent market this advanced, given the stage of the season, very little is out there. Veteran Greg Mancz was signed as a center option, with tackle Bobby Evans being brought in to back up at right tackle. Chris Reed took over at center on Sunday but looked beyond inept in a position he had never played professionally. Bradbury won’t be back in Week 18 against the Chicago Bears, and Mancz can’t be any worse than what Reed showed in emergency action. Thankfully, Minnesota still has Oli Udoh as a tackle option behind O’Neill, but it’s hardly an ideal scenario.
Having only one regular season game remaining, Minnesota must decide how much in-game continuity they’ll provide Cousins. It was clear he had no idea what Reed was doing a week ago, and the thought process from Minnesota’s fill-in was even worse. Mancz may need extended run against the Chicago Bears, but it may not matter unless Cousins is under center. Udoh has previously gotten run as a tackle for the Vikings, and maybe he doesn’t look like he’s drowning during the playoffs, but there is no denying his ability level is well below that of O’Neill’s.
What O’Connell does from the standpoint of his starters as a whole on Sunday remains to be seen. Minnesota has to use the game as a final tune-up to ensure that everyone is all systems go. The Vikings aren’t a good enough team to completely overcome a phase of the game being taken over, and they’ll need to plan to make this work as much as possible.
It’s been a blast of a season for the Vikings, and they’ve risen above situations they were up against it already, but know it’ll come down to the grit a bunch of fill-ins can show. Sometime’s football is a war of attrition, and at the end of the 2022 season, it couldn’t be more true for Minnesota.
Ted Schwerzler is a blogger from the Twin Cities that is focused on all things Minnesota Twins and Minnesota Vikings. He’s active on Twitter and writes weekly for Twins Daily. As a former college athlete and avid sports fan, covering our pro teams with a passion has always seemed like such a natural outlet.