The 2019 Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line has a strong argument for being the best O-line in the Mike Zimmer era.
From last season, they have reduced the number of times Kirk Cousins has been sacked from 6.2% of drop backs to 5.1% and reduced his pressure rate from 38.9% to 35.5%, which might seem small in percentage but it adds up over hundreds of passing plays.
On Monday Zimmer said the improvement has been a cumulative effort.
“I think it’s more than one area,” the Vikings’ head coach said. “I think Kevin (Stefanski) has done a nice job calling the game, which helps, helps the quarterback getting the ball out on time, helps he’s not sitting back there and patting it. The offensive line has done a nice job as well. I think if you put all those three things together, it’s a combination of not getting negative plays.”
After the Vikings’ Week 2 loss to Green Bay, however, it did not appear that we would be talking about the impressive protection the O-line has given Cousins. In that game he was under duress on twice as many drop backs as he was kept clean. To put that in context, the highest pressure rate in the NFL over a season is usually around 40%.
Aside from serious struggles in Week 4 and a hiccup against the Chiefs on the road, the O-line has largely been what the Vikings hoped for when they made significant changes in drafting center Garrett Bradbury with their first-round pick, moving their center Pat Elflein to guard and signing a veteran in Josh Kline.
“The most important thing is gaining familiarity with not only the scheme but one another up front, I think that’s where it starts,” said Brandon Thorn of the Trench Warfare podcast. “With a new system in place and a couple new starters, typically those things take some time and it did for this unit. It was fair to expect some sort of improvement as the year went on. I also think the schedule has gotten a little bit lighter as the year has gone on.”
The quality of competition has certainly been a difference maker because few teams sport the talent up front of the Packers. Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark each rank No. 2 at their respective positions in QB pressures. Preston Smith isn’t far behind ranking 21st among edge rushers.
The only other top-20 interior rushers they have faced were Fletcher Cox, who the Vikings largely slowed down and Kansas City’s Chris Jones, who wrecked their gameplan from the outset.
Of the top 20 in pressures among edge rushers, Khalil Mack sacked Cousins twice and pressured him seven total times, Von Miller had a sack, Joey Bosa had three pressures, Philly’s Brandon Graham had three pressures and a sack.
“Green Bay coming to Minnesota, that’s going to be the best interior defensive linemen in Kenny Clark that they have seen since the Kansas City game and the best defensive line as a whole as well,” Thorn said.
How much better has the O-line been since the dreadful day at Lambeau? Have a look at PFF’s pass blocking grades and pressures allowed….
Riley Reiff: 65.6 (three pressures)
Josh Kline: 70.7 (two pressures)
Garrett Bradbury: 54.9 (five pressures)
Dakota Dozier: 51.7 (six pressures)
Brian O’Neill: 71.4 (one pressure)
Kirk Cousins: 12 clean pocket drop backs (7-for-12, 85 yards), 23 pressured drop backs (7-for-20, 148 yards, one touchdown, one interception, one sack)
Since Week 2:
Riley Reiff: 75.6 (one sack allowed)
Josh Kline: 58.2 (16 pressures)
Garrett Bradbury: 61.5 (10 pressures since Week 2)
Pat Elflein: 55.8 (team-leading five sacks allowed)
Brian O’Neill: 71.3 (zero sacks)
Kirk Cousins: 32.6% pressure rate, 89.7 rating when pressured, 123.8 when clean (best in the NFL)
While Bradbury’s grade is only marginally better overall he has significantly reduced the amount of pressure allowed on Cousins, giving up only 10 pressures since Week 2 after giving up five in the Green Bay game alone.
“I think he’s gotten a better feel for the speed of the game,” Thorn said. “You see it in the way in the way he’s able to execute his assignments in the run game, specifically getting reach blocks on first-level guys, I think he’s doing a better job with hand placement into guys’ frames as opposed to being a little wide early in the season and losing leverage quickly…he just looks more comfortable, he’s starting to bridge that gap from college to pro.”
The consistency and health of the Vikings’ two tackles Reiff and O’Neill has been a huge factor in keeping Cousins clean. O’Neill is one of only four tackles who have not given up a sack this year and the other three are Pro Bowl-caliber in Ronnie Stanley, Terron Armstead and Ryan Ramczyk. In fact, O’Neill is second to only Stanley in fewest pressures allowed from OL with more than 800 snaps.
The Vikings’ overall jump in pass protection has been a major factor in Cousins’ improvement from 2018 to 2019. If it holds up against Green Bay, they can be confident that Cousins will have time to throw against just about anyone Minnesota matches up against in the playoffs.