The Minnesota Vikings disappointed in 2018, don’t be so quick to place all of the blame for their struggles on their offensive line.
The Minnesota Vikings underperformed to the expectations of many in 2018, falling to 8-7-1 after finishing the 2017 season 13-3, the second-most regular season wins in franchise history. While the offensive line may be considered the biggest weakness on the team, don’t lay the blame for the collapse at their collective feet.
According to Football Outsiders, Minnesota’s offensive line ranked 23rd in run blocking and 9th in pass protection this past season. This confirms that the offensive line was terrible. It’s clear that if the Vikings want to rebound in 2019 and make the playoffs they will need to be better on the offensive line.
There are plenty of reasons for the poor showing of the offensive line. It didn’t help that only one player on the line started all 16 games. The unexpected loss of offensive line coach Tony Sparano right before the start of the season certainly had an effect on the line’s performance and that from 2017 to 2018 only two of the five positions on the line were filled by the same player.
So, no doubt you’re asking yourself “so why isn’t the offensive line to blame?” Great question, a look at the offensive line ranking from 2017 provides some answers.
The following table, compiled with data from Football Outsiders, compares the Vikings’ offensive line rankings and performance in 2017 and 2018. As can be seen in the chart the Vikings ranking dropped slightly in 2018 in both run blocking and pass protection. However, in the running game, their performance was only 0.07 below league average in yards per attempt by the running backs and 0.31 better than 2017. The biggest difference between the two seasons was the number of sacks given up jumping from 27 to 40, more on that in a bit.
A look at the offensive line rankings from Pro Football Focus paints a similar picture for the Vikings. They were terrible in 2017 and got worse in 2018. Using their individual player grades, the Vikings offensive line dropped from 22nd to 29th. By comparison, the lowest ranked offensive line in the NFC playoffs was that of the Seahawks, ranked 18th by PFF. This casts some doubt on the validity of rankings since Seattle did lead the league in rushing in 2018. So can the offensive line not be blamed?
The answer may be the persons lining up behind them.
The rankings from Football Outsiders depend on the talent of the team’s running backs and the ability of the quarterback to avoid sacks. Over the past two seasons Dalvin Cook, the team’s best running back, has only played in 15 games. Coming off a knee injury that limited him to only four games in 2017, Cook averaged only 12 rushes in 11 games. His season high in carries was only 19 — a number an elite back should average over a season.
As for pass protection, the rankings are based on adjusted sack rates. Ranked in the top 10 the last two seasons, the offensive line was more than adequate to produce an effective passing game. This is supported in part by the fact over the past three seasons the Minnesota Vikings started a different QB that had the best season of their career. In 2016 the line was ranked 17th yet Sam Bradford’s passer rating was 99.3, the highest in his nine-year career. In 2017 journeyman Case Keenum had a 98.3 passer rating throwing 22 TDs. And last season Kirk Cousins became only fourth QB to pass for at least 4,000 yards and the first since Brett Favre in 2009.
The line’s drop in pass protection rating, due to the increase in sacks given up, is directly related to the mobility of Cousins compared to Keenum. Keenum had an uncanny knack of avoiding sacks with his ability to move around in the pocket, while Cousins demonstrated often in an ability to stand like a statue and hold on to the ball too long.
Something certainly changed with the Minnesota Vikings from 2017 and going 13-3 with a trip to the NFC Championship Game and dropping to 8-7-1 and a sideline participant in the playoffs, but don’t blame the offensive line, they were pretty much the same over both seasons.