MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has been through a lot this year.
Dating back to the day before training camp opened when they lost O-line coach Tony Sparano to center Pat Elflein’s extended rehab from multiple offseason surgeries to the loss of Nick Easton for the year to Riley Reiff’s foot injury, it has been a rough few months. But the steady improvement of rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill, who officially took over the starting right tackle position on Sunday with Reiff’s return, has been the silver lining to an otherwise difficult stretch.
“I think he’s played well, I think this guy is going to be a really good player,” Zimmer said.
In the Vikings’ 24-9 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, the Vikings only allowed one sack of quarterback Kirk Cousins and helped break open a 70-yard run for Dalvin Cook. Cousins was rarely pressured or hit — a significant step forward from earlier in the year.
“With only the one sack before the half when, to be honest, with the timeout I was probably going to take a sack if nothing was there, it was a great effort by our offensive line to prevent their pass rush from getting home,” Cousins said.
O’Neill began the year as the backup to Rashod Hill, who started the last two games at left tackle in place of Reiff. But he saw opportunities in multiple games off the bench and then got a shot as a starter against Arizona in Week 6. He hasn’t given the job back.
“Excited that I was able to play but at the same time, my mindset doesn’t change whether I’m the 10th tackle on our roster or the starting right tackle because it’s my responsibility to this offense and this team is to be prepared each week regardless of my role,” O’Neill said.
Of course, it hasn’t been a completely smooth ride for the Vikings’ second-round pick. Last week against the Saints he allowed three QB hurries and two QB hits while often facing off against superstar Cam Jordan. O’Neill said that matching up with league-leading sacker Danielle Hunter has helped him significantly when going against the NFL’s best.
“When he’s rushing at me and it happens over and over again in camp, you are like, ‘whoa’ but it’s good for me and it’s good for our line to have those guys in every day in practice, I truly believe that,” O’Neill said.
One area where O’Neill can give the Vikings a boost — along with Cook — is in the screen game. The Vikings were close to hitting on several big plays on short throws in which the rookie can use his athleticism and quickness to reach linebackers and defensive backs.
“It’s big, just have to tighten up the details on it, but if you can do that, it just adds another dynamic to the offense and gives teams another thing to prepare for,” Elflein said.
Overall the Vikings’ line has shown a great deal of improvement since Week 1 and the presence of Elflein and O’Neill has been key toward making a jump. They will likely have Tom Compton back and starting left guard after the bye week and face a true test against the stacked Chicago Bears defense.
“I feel like we’re getting better,” Reiff said. “I feel like that’s what we have to do, keep working, get better, just keep grinding and I think it’ll take care of itself if we do that.”