Vikings offensive line showing improvement
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) Two months ago, Matt Kalil and the rest of the Minnesota Vikings offensive linemen were reeling.
The Detroit Lions had just sacked rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater eight times, relentless pressure that also led to three interceptions, while forcing seven punts and limiting the Vikings to three points.
The division rematch has arrived this week, and the Vikings are now down three of their five original starters to injuries. That doesn't mean they're anxious, tough, about having again to block Ziggy Ansah, Ndamukong Suh and the rest of that fierce front four the Lions have.
''I'm not worried about this game at all,'' Kalil said. ''I think the guys we've got up there are pretty solid.''
Ansah has 15 1/2 sacks in 27 career games, 2 1/2 against Kalil and the Vikings on Oct. 12.
''I've definitely got my hands full, but their other defensive linemen are pretty good, too,'' Kalil said.
This has been a rough season for the former fourth overall draft pick, taken by the Vikings in 2012 out of USC, but he has started to play a bit better over the second half of the season despite a persistence of costly penalties.
The overall protection for Bridgewater has been better, too, as he's learned to deliver the ball more quickly without letting the pass rush alter his throws. Bridgewater has taken a total of 13 sacks over the past six games.
Most remarkable about the improvement is that the Vikings have done so with a majority of backups. Kalil and center John Sullivan are still intact, but Joe Berger is at right guard for Brandon Fusco and Mike Harris is playing right tackle for Phil Loadholt.
Both Fusco and Loadholt are on injured reserve with torn pectoral muscles. Left guard Charlie Johnson hurt his ankle in the last game, too, so Vlad Ducasse is in line to replace him against the Lions. Ducasse started four games for Fusco before Berger took over there.
''It's a next-man-up mentality. I know Vlad is going to come in and do a great job for us,'' Harris said. ''This is my third game now. The coaches are expecting me to perform at a high level. Just play ball. That's it.''
Kalil and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, unprompted in separate interviews, each credited offensive line coach Jeff Davidson for his patchwork.
''Jeff's been doing a great job all year of just throwing guys in random spots, getting them used to playing all different positions,'' Davidson said.
None more than Berger, the veteran now in his 10th NFL season, his fourth with the Vikings. He has been the go-to guy at both guard spots and center when injuries have come up.
''He's kind of the mauler in there,'' Kalil said.
Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, speaking about the lack of touchdowns on kickoff returns this year, mentioned missing Berger's blocking on that unit now that he's a starter on offense.
''He does get outmanned a little bit at times, but I think he makes up for with having a good understanding of what we're trying to do and being in the right position,'' Turner said.
Berger, who played at NCAA Division II Michigan Tech and grew up in the state, will have several family members and friends at Ford Field on Sunday. So this is a special game for him. But he's not letting the Lions become that big of a deal.
''They're a good defensive front. We just need to do what we need to do, take care of ourselves and we'll be all right,'' Berger said.
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