Vikings hope new offensive line is an upgrade

Vikings hope new offensive line is an upgrade

Published Jun. 18, 2012 10:44 a.m. ET

While the Vikings try to figure out the right combination of new players on their offensive line, fans might be trying to figure how much the changes will really help and where the anticipated improvements will come.

A look at the stats from last year certainly offer a blurred and confusing picture of what went wrong, what is left to salvage and how much, if any, the changes made over the last three months will help.

For starters, Christian Ponder, who started 10 games in his rookie season last year, believes he was too quick to leave the pocket and run for cover. Ponder wasn't the only one, as the Vikings' three quarterbacks (including Donovan McNabb and Joe Webb) were sacked a combined 49 times in 2011, tied for fifth in the league.

But for those looking for signs of hope, there is a glass-half-full statistic to calm their frazzled nerves. Those same three players combined for a middle-of-the-pack ranking in quarterback hits. Vikings quarterbacks were hit 76 times for a 15th-place ranking and far better than quarterbacks for the St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks, who absorbed 114 hits each throughout the season.

The protection issues were a big reason the Vikings were sold on left tackle Matt Kalil being the right draft pick for them at No. 4 overall. So far, Kalil has yet to put on the pads – that will take place this week at minicamp, when he also will try to stymie the defending NFL sacks leader, Jared Allen, for the first time in practice. While coaches even admit it's more difficult to tell how effective a rookie, especially an offensive lineman, will be without pads, even those who are reserved in handing out praise believe Kalil can be “very good."

Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson also believes that sliding former left tackle Charlie Johnson inside to guard is more natural fit for him.  Johnson will be replacing veteran Steve Hutchinson, who was released as part of the Vikings' youth movement.

On the surface, the selection of Kalil and moving of Johnson would seem to bring an upgrade in the pass protection for Ponder in 2012. But a look at the run-blocking statistics to the left, right and up the gut paint a contradicting picture of the effective of the team's rushing efficiency last year.

The Johnson-Hutchinson side of the line did its job in run blocking. The Vikings were a top-seven team in rushing first downs to the left (47), power rushing to the left on third and fourth down (gaining first downs on 75 percent of those attempts with 2 yards or less to go), and runs of 10 yards or more to the left (27). However, the inconsistency of the line reared its head when looking at negative plays, where the Vikings ranked fourth with 22 negative runs to the left.

So what about the right side, where the usually maligned Phil Loadholt anchored at right tackle and the now-released Anthony Herrera was at guard? Actually, it was similar success there. They had 40 first downs running to the right (tied for ninth), 27 rushes of 10 or more yards to Loadholt's side (tied for fourth) and an improved power rating of 83 percent (tied for tops in the league). The inconsistency was still a problem on the right, as the 13 negative rushes to Loadholt's side ranked 20th in the league.

Perhaps a bit more predictably, the inconsistency in the power numbers showed through with the Vikings' numbers rushing up the gut, where center John Sullivan is often given credit for his toughness and cerebral play-calling, but also has shown he can be overpowered by bigger nose tackles.  The Vikings were tied for eighth with 31 rushing first downs up the middle and tied for second with 21 rushes of 10 yards or more up the middle, but they also had the second-most negative runs up the gut with 18 and middle of the road converting power plays (tied for 17th at 60 percent).

What does it all mean? Perception – like the general idea that Loadholt was the most ineffective of the linemen last year – isn't always reality when it comes to the offensive line. The Vikings had their share of problems, especially when it came to pass protection, for sure, but some of that falls on the quarterbacks setting at the wrong depth or scrambling too soon or running backs and tight ends making the wrong pick-up on a blitz.

The Vikings made their decision with the offensive line: They were going to get younger by releasing Hutchinson and Herrera, but a look at the overall effectiveness of the line shows that not everything was as bad as sometimes believed.

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