Sometimes it takes a village to keep a quarterback upright.
The Minnesota Vikings have not only battled some of the elite defensive linemen in the NFL through the first six weeks — including the likes of Mike Daniels, Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Jerry Hughes, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham etc. — but they have done so shorthanded on the offensive line. There hasn’t yet been a week where the Vikings’ starting five of Riley Reiff, Tom Compton, Pat Elflein, Mike Remmers and Rashod Hill played a full game together.
For as tough as the competition has been, the Vikings are mid-pack in the NFL in sack percentage (6.5 percent). Part of the reason is that John DeFilippo’s offense has called upon quarterback Kirk Cousins to get the ball out quickly. The Vikings have also called upon a number of different role players to assist in the effort.
Running back Latavius Murray has been used for 43 pass blocking snaps, in limited action Dalvin Cook has 16 blocking snaps, No. 2 tight end David Morgan 31, third tight end Tyler Conklin 12 and fullback CJ Ham has been in for six pass blocking plays.
All combined they have allowed seven pressures in 106 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus data. Head coach Mike Zimmer talked Thursday about the need for players outside of the big uglies to help with pass protection.
“You have to in today’s game… that’s the hardest thing for young backs to learn is protections because they didn’t do any of that in college,” Zimmer said. “You have to have some guys that you can rely on. There’s some great pass rushers out there that you have to chip, whether it’s an inside player, outside player, outside linebacker. Each gameplan is based on who needs help, when they need help, there’s a lot of things involved with it so guys that can protect are big.”
Murray is second in the NFL in pass blocking snaps by a running back, behind only Pittsburgh’s James Connor. He has consistently graded as one of the league’s best blockers.
Offensive coordinator John DeFilippo cited Murray’s blocking as a hidden value to his game. DeFilippo explained why pass blocking is so challenging for running backs.
“First off you have to know what you’re looking at,” he said. “You have to understand the different fronts. Is it a three down front, is it a four down front, is it a spinner front, where’s the rotations? Two-high shell or a middle shell? Is the nickel pressed? Is the nickel off? Do they bring the nickel from off this week? Where is the free safety? Is there a chance for a side adjust, where we’re going to have to read the Mike [linebacker]. I just mentioned about ten things there that they have to see in about ten seconds…That’s what makes running backs good in protection, it’s identification.
“For the most part, you’re not in this league if you’re not a tough guy. You need to be willing to stick your face in there and be physical. It’s hard to play running back and not be a tough guy. That’s the part in pass protection where the elite guys separate themselves, the identification piece.”
The New York Jets are one of the league’s top blitzing teams, which means the Vikings’ tight ends and backs will be asked to react quickly. According to ESPN, the Jets blitz the fifth highest percentage of plays in the NFL. Out of 68 drop backs, Cousins has been sacked three times on blitzes and averaged 9.1 yards per attempt with a 96.0 quarterback rating.