EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Matt Kalil could sense the Detroit Lions having success against him last week while the play was going on. He was on his own on the left side of the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive line and felt Detroit’s pass rushers constantly trying to beat him inside.
What Kalil couldn’t figure out then was the reason for the Lions’ continued approach inside. Kalil was one of the top pass-protecting left tackles in the NFL last season as a rookie, coming in as the No. 4 overall pick and starting every game on his way to a Pro Bowl appearance.
As soon as Kalil returned to the Minnesota’s facilities on Monday to watch film, he was able to dissect what happened in Sunday’s loss at Detroit. His talent allowed him to be a first-year sensation. His confidence could help him overcome a slow start in his sophomore campaign.
“It’s just little things,” Kalil said of seeing mistakes on game film. “It’s not like big things, like I’m freaking out, ‘I got beat a couple times, my season’s over.’ It’s just a couple things like learning how to use my peripheral vision. We go on silent count the whole time. I think it was just certain things where I’m looking at the ball and when the ball’s snapped, my head snaps around to look at the defense and I start drifting out, so he comes inside.”
Kalil wasn’t the only member of the Vikings’ offensive line to struggle last week, but as the left tackle he certainly gets attention. Following a 78-yard touchdown run by MVP running back Adrian Peterson on the first offensive play from scrimmage, Minnesota’s typically formidable run blocking was beaten by the Detroit defensive line. The Vikings also had trouble containing the Lions’ pass rush and quarterback Christian Ponder was under duress in the 34-24 loss.
“It was just a breakdown from us up front or along the entire offense,” center John Sullivan about the struggles to run the ball. “It’s just the way these games go. It’s disappointing for us. But at the same time, we’re not going to hang our heads. We’re going to go back to work this week in practice.”
Minnesota’s offensive line returned this season as one of the expected strengths of the offense. All five starters returned after the Vikings made re-signing right tackle Phil Loadholt a priority in the offseason. It was a line built on the experience and steadiness of Sullivan inside and having two strong tackles on the outside in Kalil and Loadholt. Left guard Charlie Johnson and right guard Brandon Fusco were entering their second year at their respective spots.
The group that paved the way for Peterson to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season was supposed to be the backbone of another run-first offense. But Sullivan warned that each season needs to stand on its own.
“Football as a player, as a unit, as an offensive line, as an offense, as a team, it’s always a work in progress,” Sullivan said. “So, what you did last year, what you did last week, you can only learn from it, can’t fall back on that. You just got to keep moving forward.”
The cohesiveness from playing 17 regular-season games in a row together, though, gives the offensive line a foundation to build from.
Peterson’s big run Sunday also provides hope, though the group is being realistic.
“We have to be better,” guard Charlie Johnson said. “There was one run, obviously, when everybody did their job. That shows we’re going to be pretty successful. Outside of that, you don’t feel very good about getting stuffed in the run game.”
During the preseason, the offensive line had a tough time, notably against Buffalo’s unexpected blitz-heavy scheme. Kalil allowed a sack on the first play of the game, again beaten inside. In the third preseason game, Kalil was penalized twice for unnecessary roughness and Loadholt had a holding penalty, all three infractions coming on the same drive.
“I don’t know about the exact mistakes (from the preseason), but still too many mistakes,” offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said. “From the preseason, we were not playing our best and we’re still working to improve some of those corrections. A couple of the uncharacteristic mistakes did show up and, of course, did hurt us ultimately.”
Kalil’s mistakes were unexpected. He allowed only two sacks last year, according to research by Pro Football Focus. None of the three sacks of Ponder Sunday were allowed by Kalil, yet he knows of his mistakes and is working to correct them. The biggest issue, according to Kalil, was “drifting” outside and getting beat inside.
He said there was an adjustment going from the preseason to the noise and tempo of the regular season.
“Going and playing San Francisco and getting that week off and playing a full game again,” Kalil said. “There’s no excuses to it. I know I have to play out there. No one’s going to be a tougher critic than myself. I hold myself to a certain standard. I’ll definitely get after it this week.”
Kalil has a tougher task this week with Chicago’s Julius Peppers on the other side, but Kalil said he’s also his toughest critic.
“I know what I have to fix,” Kalil said. “I’ve got my mind straight this week and I’m ready to get after it. I’m not freaked out. I had a bad game.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Ponder had 2.79 seconds to throw Sunday, which was the 14th most among all quarterbacks. Last year, Pro Football Focus equated Ponder’s time to throw as 2.76 seconds, which was 17th among quarterbacks who took the most snaps for their teams.
Frazier said there were times last week where Ponder didn’t have enough time to go through his reads. Other times, Ponder needed to react to the pressure surrounding him.
“There are going to be times where he might not have a clean pocket and you’ve got to make some good decisions when that happens,” Frazier said. “It does happen in our league to quarterbacks. You have to be able to function in those situations. It’s not always going to be perfect.”