Over the last two games, Minnesota Vikings rookie right tackle Brian O’Neill has given up just one QB hurry, zero QB hits and zero sacks. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, he hasn’t given up a sack all year.
That doesn’t mean his first NFL season has gone perfectly — there have been three games in which he gave up five pressures and the former Pitt lineman has not put together stellar run blocking grades — but his steady improvement has helped an offensive line that was struggling early in the year.
“The big challenge is to try to improve on little details week-to-week and day-to-day in practice,” O’Neill said on Monday. “Be able to go into each day and have a purpose with that practice and trying to get better at something. That’s been my focus, trying to hone in day by day and I haven’t really taken a big-picture outlook on it.”
It wasn’t clear when O’Neill was drafted whether he would see much playing time in Year 1. At a shade under 300 pounds, it was clear that he would have to put on weight in order to face off with some of the league’s best edge rushers. He took over as the starter officially against the Lions on November 4.
On a conference call with the Twin Cities media on Monday, head coach Mike Zimmer discussed the team’s decision to start their rookie.
“We knew at some point it was going to happen,” Zimmer said. “He’s just such a good athlete, he can get to the second level in the run game and so I think the big part about it was: how quick can he adapt in the passing game? He continued to get better and better every day. Sometimes he gets out of position but he’s able to use his athletic ability to recover. For an offensive lineman, I think a lot of it is the ability to recover.”
“You’re going to get some athletic defensive ends and they’re going to put you in a bad spot every once in awhile, but can you get out of that bad spot and still protect the quarterback? He’s done that. It just kind of showed and showed and showed and we felt like it was time.”
The Vikings’ head coach said he initially did not think O’Neill would be ready to contribute as early as he did.
“We thought maybe closer toward the end of the year,” Zimmer said. “We knew he was a really good athlete and he’s a tough kid. He’s probably had a little bit more toughness than I thought he might have, moving from tight end in college to offensive line. He’s really shown a lot of toughness, grit and those kinds of things. I think he’s really worked on a lot of the things that were his weakness coming in here.”
While the Vikings have seen two rookies have success at their positions over the last two years, Zimmer said the jump from college to the pros is massive on the O-line.
“From technique, from schemes, the defenses that they have to play, the adjustments that they have to make, the pass protection technique, all those things are way, way different than in college football,” he said. “I think that’s why there’s a little bit of a learning curve with a lot of the young players.”
O’Neill said that playing next to veteran right guard Mike Remmers has helped him gain ground quickly.
“A new level of attention to detail that I’d never seen before,” O’Neill said. “How hard they are coaching us every day and I think playing next to Mike Remmers has really helped me a lot. I can’t say enough about his mindset and attitude and work ethic. The guy I work with the most in the room is one of the hardest workers and sets a really good example for me of how to go to work and how to be a pro.”
Asked for specifics on the details, O’Neill pointed to several examples of the small differences between success and failure on the O-line.
“It could be something as the difference of two inches of where you hand is placed on the back side of a zone play or how your second step hits the ground or what angle you’re going to come out of your stance,” O’Neill said. “I know, OK, I have to block this guy, but what are the fine details when it comes to footwork, pad level, angles, hat placement, all those kind of things that go into the finer points of playing offensive line.”
This week could offer his toughest challenge as an NFL player, depending on how the Chicago Bears elect to use superstar edge rusher Khalil Mack. In the two teams’ last matchup, Chicago lined up Mack over left tackle Riley Reiff on the majority of plays. But throughout his career, Mack, who has 12.5 sacks in 13 games this season, has more often been a left defensive end.
In Week 11 against the Bears, O’Neill allowed just one pressure in 54 pass rush snaps.
The offensive line has been given some assistance from new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski via play-actions, rollouts and more commitment to the run game.
“We always say, a lot of times it’s going to come down to one-on-one matchups,” O’Neill said. “Is my best going to be better than his best? For us it’s about trying to figure out what worked well last time and what gave us problems.”