The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has not only held up over the last two weeks, they have played back-to-back strong games against the Arizona Cardinals and New York Jets. Kirk Cousins was only pressured nine times last week (down from 30 times against Los Angeles) and the Vikings created explosive runs for the second straight week.
Impressively the Vikings have put together those strong performances without starting left tackle Riley Reiff, who has been battling a foot injury. Reiff has been replaced by Rashod Hill on the left side while rookie Brian O’Neill has taken over right tackle.
“I thought he played well yesterday,” head coach Mike Zimmer said of O’Neill on Monday. “Physical, much better in the pass protection, good in the running game.”
In 185 pass blocking snaps this year, O’Neill has not allowed a sack and has given up just four QB hits and seven hurries, according to Pro Football Focus data. PFF also rates him as the second best run blocker on the team, second to injured guard Tom Compton.
“When he came in he was raw I guess is the best way to say it,” Zimmer said following the win over Arizona. “I think he’s improved his technique quite a bit. He’s been a good battler. I would say probably the pass game is the best. The run game he was always pretty good, so I think probably in the pass game.”
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo said he has been impressed by O’Neill’s mental makeup. On several occasions he was asked to jump into the mix when either Reiff or Hill got hurt.
“We’re looking for him to grow,” DeFilippo said. “The thing about Brian too is he’s tough. He wants to finish guys off, and whenever you have that mentality as an offensive lineman you got a really good shot.”
If Reiff returns this week, the Vikings will have a decision to make: Move Hill back to right tackle or keep starting the second-round pick from Pitt?
There’s no argument about whether O’Neill’s performances have been admirable, rather the Vikings will be asking if he can hold his own yet against the Saints.
You might look at the Cards and Jets as inferior opponents to the Saints, but both teams have more sacks this season than New Orleans. However, the Saints are the No. 1 rushing defense in the NFL, allowing just 3.1 yards per carry. if the Vikings decide to commit more to the run and screen pass game than they have for most of this season, O’Neill’s athleticism gives them another weapon.
Still the Saints have one of the best pass rushers over the past five years in Cameron Jordan, who lines up more over the right tackle than left.
Last year in the NFC Divisional game, Jordan did not pick up a sack while battling against Hill, but did have seven QB hurries and one QB hit. So far this season he has five sacks and only one game with fewer than four pressures.
O’Neill hasn’t faced off with anyone close to Jordan’s caliber. Three times in his career, the veteran defensive end has cleared double-digit sack totals and he’s managed 50-plus hurries for the last three years in a row. Jordan is also known for batting down passes — he had 12 last year — which has been an issue at times for quarterback Kirk Cousins.
While O’Neill appears to be a player on the rise, Hill is coming off his best game of the season last week in which he allowed just two hurries. In four of the Vikings’ seven games, Hill has allowed two or fewer hurries. His previous experience against Jordan may also give him the best shot to protect Cousins.