EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Minnesota Vikings offensive line coach Jeff Davidson almost seemed to be foreshadowing last week’s game against the Washington Redskins a week ago when he talked about how the team’s offensive line was still a work in progress.
Minnesota’s offensive line, rebuilt heavily during the offseason, had fared well this season, giving up just four sacks and pacing one of the league’s top rushing attacks during a three-game win streak. Rightly so, the quintet was gaining recognition for the solid performances.
Davidson was pleased with the line’s progress but did throw a bit of cold water on the hype.
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“I don’t think we’ve quite jelled well enough yet,” Davidson said last week. “I think we’ve got a long way to go. I think our players are taking that same mentality, too. We’re moving in the right direction, which is a good thing.”
And then last week, the line struggled at times against an inspired Washington defense, which ranks 32nd in the league against the pass. The Redskins tallied four sacks and helped contribute to three turnovers by Christian Ponder and several poor throws resulting from not setting his feet.
Perhaps due to those issues, the Vikings made a change along the offensive line for the first time all season, giving veteran lineman Geoff Schwartz some snaps at right guard in place of second-year player Brandon Fusco. The line of left tackle Matt Kalil, left guard Charlie Johnson, center John Sullivan, Fusco and right tackle Phil Loadholt had played all but three snaps together the first five weeks of the season.
Schwartz played 11 snaps in place of Fusco, and coach Leslie Frazier and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave said they will continue to rotate Schwartz in at times.
“We want to be able to do that periodically,” Frazier said. “We felt like that was a good game to do it. It worked out pretty good. I think he had 11 snaps. We got some good game-action tape that we weren’t able to get in the preseason to evaluate him and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
Schwartz, a four-year veteran, signed with Minnesota in the offseason believing he could re-establish himself as a starter in the league after missing all of last season due to hip surgery. A former 16-game starter in Carolina, Schwartz reunited with Davidson, who was his position coach with the Panthers.
Signed to a one-year contract, Schwartz is happy to have more playing time, but he hasn’t been told how much he will play going forward.
“I’d been down for so long, I was glad to just finally get back on the field,” Schwartz said. “That was more of a concern for me than not playing right away. I was just happy to get back on the field, and I thought my second series was better than the first one, so going forward, I have things to work on.”
The team has high hopes for Fusco, too. A sixth-round draft pick last year, he earned the starting right guard job, which was vacated after the team released veteran Anthony Herrera in the offseason. But Fusco has struggled at times, and coaches want to see more confidence out of the second-year player out of small-school Slippery Rock.
“Just clean up on technique,” Fusco said about what he needs to improve. “I just have to continue to work and watch the film, study more. It’s sometimes I’m playing like it’s a guessing game out there. I have to be more confident out there and just play my game, be aggressive and just do what I can do best.”
Last week was the second time this season Minnesota had allowed four sacks in a game, but it’s still a stark contrast from last year when quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Christian Ponder were running from pressure regularly.
Last season, the Vikings allowed 49 sacks, tied for the fifth-highest total in the league. This season — with the line changes also including the drafting of Matt Kalil and moving Charlie Johnson to left guard — Minnesota has given up 13 sacks in the first six games, tied for 15th in the league.
By comparison, this week’s opponent, Arizona, has allowed a league-high 28 sacks. NFC North foe Green Bay has allowed 23.
Ponder has noticed the difference and is feeling more comfortable staying in the pocket.
“There’s still that internal clock in your head that goes off, but I have the confidence to get to those third and fourth reads,” Ponder said. “Watching on film, the pocket is huge a lot of the time and they’re doing such a tremendous job.”
Having players in the right spots has been beneficial, but Sullivan also credits the communication along the line and the work put in during the offseason.
“We have an incredible time in meeting rooms where we’re discussing things with Jeff and getting everybody on the same page,” Sullivan said. “That way we can go out and we can anticipate the calls that are going to be made. It still falls on the center to make them, but at the same time, just through talking through things off the field, Charlie or Brandon or Phil or Matt knows where I’m going with the call before I even make it.”
The work might not be done, but Davidson sees the progress.
“I think we’re constantly striving to get better each day and that to me is what’s helped us, just the work ethic we’ve created,” he said. “And it’s on the players, it’s not something I’ve done. It’s the players and the way they’ve gone about their business. They come out here, put their hard hats on each day and try to get better.”