The Minnesota Vikings loss at the Green Bay Packers last weekend was loathsome, but the loss wasn’t the worst part of the event.
Minnesota lost backup center Austin Schlottmann for the season to a broken leg and right tackle Brian O’Neill indefinitely to a calf malady. Schlottmann is replaceable — especially if regular starter Garrett Bradbury returns for the postseason — but O’Neill is not.
Plain and simple — O’Neill is not a replaceable commodity. Vikings fans might trick themselves into believing, “well, maybe the next man up will do something special,” but that will not happen. O’Neill is among the best right tackles on the planet, and he’s paid handsomely accordingly.
The Vikings Need Kevin O’Connell’s Finest Trick
So, here’s the deal: To fix the Vikings budding offensive line problem — the franchise knows a lot about offensive line struggles — O’Connell must execute his finest trick. He’s tasked with fixing the offensive trenches on the fly with non-starter-caliber players.
With all the starters upfront, the Vikings offensive line is a 2022 mixed bag. Quarterback Kirk Cousins “leads the league” in knockdowns — and by that, we mean he gets knocked to the grass or turf more than anyone. Minnesota ranks 27th in sacks allowed, and that isn’t a good mark. The Vikings allowed defenders to sack Cousins at the sixth-worst clip in the league.
On the other hand, heading into Week 17, the Vikings showcased the 10th-best offensive line in the business, according to Pro Football Focus. And if you’re an optimist, you point to the PFF rankings because the Vikings generally ranked near the bottom of the business via offensive line grades per PFF from 2014 to 2021.
So far, though, 2022 is different in PFF’s estimation as the Brian O’Neill, Ed Ingram, Garrett Bradbury, Ezra Cleveland, and Christian Darrisaw fivesome has been a better group than any Vikings iteration over the last decade.
But this risk here is regression due to injury. The possibility is glaring the Vikings in the face. Therefore, with a presumed hodgepodge of Oli Udoh, Ingram, Chris Reed, and Christian Darrisaw, the Vikings need a fancy trick from O’Connell’s offensive-minded brain. If Mike Zimmer was still in charge, the offensive line playoff outlook might be downtrodden (if it was even any good in the first place).
On Zimmer’s watch, the Vikings converted Udoh to a right guard. That didn’t work. He ranked second in the NFL in penalties and wasn’t overly proficient as a guard. The hope now is Udoh never should’ve been flipped to guard in 2021, instead relying on the assumption he’s a better tackle than guard. We shall see.
At center, Reed may improve on the terrible Week 17 outing with a full week of practice. Reed has been a decent offensive lineman his whole career, but his center resume is sketchy. He encountered the unenviable task of taking over at center on the road, in the relative cold, playing a position that is not his bread and butter.
Why is all of this important? Why do the Vikings need O’Connell’s finest OL-related trick? In all likelihood, Minnesota will play the New York Giants in Round 1 of the playoffs, and the Giants pass rush, led by Wink Martindale’s blitz-happy tendencies, will eat Minnesota alive if Udoh and Reed struggle. We enter inevitable territory on this one.
Finally, Bradbury may be back in time for the postseason, but O’Connell should proceed as if he will not. It’s the only way to safeguard against offensive line doom and gloom.
The Vikings hired an offense-first head coach for a reason. O’Connell must find a wise route to circumvent OL injuries if his team wants to be more than the cliche one-and-done in the playoffs.
Dustin Baker is a political scientist who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2007. Subscribe to his daily YouTube Channel, VikesNow. He hosts a podcast with Bryant McKinnie, which airs every Wednesday with Raun Sawh and Sal Spice. His Viking fandom dates back to 1996. Listed guilty pleasures: Peanut Butter Ice Cream, ‘The Sopranos,’ and The Doors (the band).