Consistency, scheme helping Vikings O-line gel in camp

EAGAN — It was a strange sight during Tuesday’s Minnesota Vikings practice at TCO Performance center to see someone other than the starting five offensive linemen in front of Kirk Cousins.

Right tackle Brian O’Neill sat out practice, leaving Rashod Hill and Storm Norton to split his reps. O’Neill appeared to have an elbow injury that head coach Mike Zimmer said he didn’t expect to keep him out very long.

Having five offensive linemen consistently throughout camp hasn’t always happened during the Zimmer era. In 2016 Phil Loadholt announced his retirement in late July and the Vikings lost Mike Harris to a medial issue. In 2018, guard Nick Easton went out for the year with a back injury and starting center Pat Elflein did not return as a starter until Week 4 after having offseason surgery.

At this point in 2018, the Vikings were looking to players like Cornelius Edison and trading for Brett Jones in order to fill out the line.

This time around, Riley Reiff, Elflein, Garrett Bradbury, Josh Klein and O’Neill have been nearly 100 percent healthy, giving them time to bond and learn the Kubiak/Stefanski zone scheme.

“The difference this year — knock on wood — is that it’s short term things as opposed to Pat [Elflien] missing part of the season,” Zimmer said. “I was telling Sug, they will be fine, let’s avoid the big ones and stick with the small ones.”

Aside from the health of the offensive line, the day-to-day performance has been vastly improved — aside from the times Danielle Hunter blows up plays during 11-on-11 drills. Zimmer points to the scheme as helping the line make quick progress.

“I really like the stuff they are doing,” Zimmer said. “They are changing up the protections are good and as you’ve seen the play-actions have been good. Part of that is you get some suck up by the safeties and linebackers but also you are getting four hands on guys and you might be keeping an extra tight end in. If you get that and the receivers have a chance to run all over the field and Kirk has been throwing the deep ball really good. And as far as the running game I’m seeing more creases that I have normally seen.”

Additional notes from practice

— On Friday night against New Orleans, offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will be calling plays for the first time since Week 17. He got three games under his belt last season after the firing of John DeFilippo. Stefanski talked about what he learned from that experience:

“Three games there were simply just the procedure of pressing the button and calling the play, those little things help. One of the things I did learn in those three games is how collaborative play-calling is. It’s something that I think I knew before, but you lean on your coaches. That’s where I’m so lucky, I have some really good ones on our staff that can help us through those games. I put a lot of the emphasis on the work we do during the week in preparing a game plan and then the play-calling itself should be a little bit easier because you feel stronger about your game plan and you’ve got a lot of good coaches helping you along.”

— The Vikings offensive line has been using this donut thing to help them learn how to properly cut block.

Stefanski talked about the donut thing.

 “I would just tell you that it’s a shape where you’re not just jumping on a mat that’s just down flat. There’s at least a shape that simulates the player as they roll into the player and then there’s a safety element where they can then roll on to the mat.”

— Tight ends have been a big part of Gary Kubiak’s offenses in the past. Thus far in camp, there have been many multiple TE personnel packages used by the Vikings. The position appears to be one of strength with Kyle Rudolph, Irv Smith and Tyler Conklin all putting together strong camp performances. Stefanski was asked about Kubiak’s history with successful tight ends. He said:

“I think Gary has a real good feel for that position. Historically, he’s had a bunch of good ones, going back to Shannon Sharpe, some of the guys he had in Houston and Denver. Certainly, he has a good feel for the type of player that fits our scheme and we’ve had a lot of really good discussions. I think you see it in practice. We are a multiple offense, so were going to have three tight ends out there and then we are going to have no tight ends out there. There is certainly a place for those players in our scheme.”

Zimmer added that the use of tight ends ties in well with the scheme. Zimmer said:

“With our guys, there are a couple benefits. Number one, you can spread them all out. Number two, it typically compacts the defense into one personnel group or whatever they decide to play. But it’s going to be more linebacker type guys in there as opposed to safeties or corners and things like that. Saying that, the play-actions are good off of those things, too.”

— Alexander Mattison has impressed in camp. Zimmer said:

“He’s got really good vision, he’s got good feet. He’s a little bit more of a downhill guy as far as following with his pads forward and things like that. He brings a little bit more thump — though Dalvin is physical as well. I think it’ll be a pretty good change of pace.”

— Ameer Abdullah appears to have a role in the offense, too. Zimmer said:

“[In] the running game, he’s got the thing that we’re looking for with the one step cuts. And in the passing game, he’s pretty good with running the routes and running the angles to set the defender up and then beating them inside or outside on the option routes. He’ll have to work on protection because he’s not a big guy. So people will see him in there and try to rush him if they can.”

— We still don’t know when Mike Hughes will be back but Zimmer offered some optimism on a potential return.

“He’s doing really good. It’s up to the doctors when they say he’s ready to roll, he’s ready to roll.”