Continuity, consistency key for Vikings’ close-knit offensive line
Since Minnesota drafted left tackle Matt Kalil with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, the starting offensive line has consisted of Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Step inside the meeting room for the Minnesota Vikings offensive line and a group entering its third season together is as close-knit as one would expect.
Even through a head coaching change, offensive line coach Jeff Davidson remains. The anchor of the line is center John Sullivan and some meetings are jokingly referred to as the "J.D./Sully meetings." In the back of the room are the veterans like Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt, who have started on Minnesota’s offensive line together since Loadholt’s rookie season in 2009.
Rookies like David Yankey are requested to have a joke and riddle on them at all times in case they’re called on by the veterans in instances when the mood in the room needs to be lightened.
All of the promise of the Vikings offense under new coordinator Norv Turner, with playmakers such as Adrian Peterson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Rudolph, begins with the five linemen who have all met in this same meeting room for the past three seasons. Even top backup Joe Berger has been a constant over the past three years.
"I can’t think of another offensive line that’s been able to do that," Sullivan said. "Obviously, there’s turnover based on personnel decisions, based on injuries. But I think we have one starter who is 30. Hopefully we can keep this thing going for a long time."
Since Minnesota drafted left tackle Matt Kalil with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, the starting offensive line has consisted of Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, Sullivan, right guard Brandon Fusco and Loadholt. The five have started together all but two games the past two seasons.
Kalil and Sullivan have started every game. Johnson, Fusco and Loadholt each missed one game last season. Johnson and Loadholt were out for the same game. Berger started two of the games.
The continuity allowed the group to pick things up quickly in training camp and helped solidify the status of the starting five. Yankey was a fifth-round draft pick, but his time away from the team while finishing school cost him a chance to break up the starters.
"I think that’s a good group with tightness," coach Mike Zimmer said.
Turnover is constant in the NFL, but the Vikings line has survived.
"It just means we can anticipate the reactions the guys are going to have," Sullivan said. "We’ve played together for a long time, and then keeping Jeff Davidson in the room has been huge. A lot of carryover on the calls, it makes communicating easier when we get back in the meeting room or if we’re on the sidelines talking things through. It’s important."
Sullivan is the leader as the center, making all of the line calls. A sixth-round draft pick out of Notre Dame in 2008, Sullivan was a backup for one season before making 77 starts over the past five years.
"Sully’s definitely the dominant voice in (the meeting room) as being kind of the quarterback of the offensive line," Kalil said. "He needs to know all those calls and everything. We’ll joke sometimes and say it’s the J.D./Sully meetings because it’s them going over calls and we’re just listening in. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever been around."
Loadholt was drafted in the second round a year after Sullivan and the two became starters at the same time.
Kalil might be the piece that brings the entire line together.
He was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl as a rookie but played through a knee injury last year that hampered his preparation. He ended up having knee surgery after the season and missed much of the offseason program.
Back at practice since training camp ended, Kalil is starting to find his old form.
"Obviously the first couple weeks of camp you’re a little rusty," Kalil said. "I hadn’t done anything for three months, and legs are kind of shot and kind of have to catch up. Now things are kind of slowed down. I’m getting my legs back underneath me. Coming out early every practice working with J.D. on my kick-steps, kind of fine-tuning everything. I think I’ve been steadily improving the last two games and just going up from there."
It’s no coincidence that as Kalil feels better, the entire line falls into place. Minnesota gave up six sacks in the preseason opener against Oakland. Last week against Arizona, with the Cardinals bringing a lot of pressure, the Vikings only allowed one sack.
"It was a point of emphasis for us from coach Zimmer, it was to keep the pocket cleaner," Sullivan said. "I think it was just a better experience. Week 1, not to make excuses, but that was a totally new scenario, going to a new stadium, going through a new pregame warm-up routine. I think everybody was much more comfortable with just a week under their belt coming in this past Saturday, preparing for the Cardinals and going out there and executing as well as we could."
Health plays a part.
Sullivan wouldn’t offer details or use the situation as an excuse, but said, "We’re healthier than we’ve been in a long time though."
Kalil stuck with his routine in training camp. He would hit the practice field 30 to 35 minutes before the rest of the offensive line and work on his technique.
"That work is slowly starting to pay off," Kalil said. "I’m feeling a lot better, a lot more comfortable. When you first go in there, especially for me, it’s one thing to learn things on the board and it’s one thing to actually go out and do it on the field when there’s moving pieces and everything.
"It’s getting back to two years ago, that continuity and dominating offensive line. I think we’re going to have a good year this year."