Zone Coverage: Vikings 2020 schedule from an offensive line perspective

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
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Brian O'Neill

By now you’ve seen the Vikings’ 2020 schedule broken down just about every way imaginable — and if you haven’t, you aren’t trying hard enough.

So let’s move beyond the NFL annually sticking it to the Vikings by giving them primetime road games and having them host the Green Bay Packers in a Week 1 tilt that, more than any other date on the schedule, won’t likely be open to fans.

Here’s a rundown of Minnesota’s slate from the perspective of the offensive line. Like other schedule analysis, take these results with a grain of salt as by necessity they’re based on previous performance — last year’s stats and grades. But it was either George Santayana or Mr. Hand who said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

PRE-BYE (WEEKS 1-6)

In a season where minicamps will be virtual, training camps may be shortened, and teams won’t get nearly the preseason practice reps necessary to acclimate new additions, the schedule couldn’t break much better for the Vikings.

Based on Pro Football Focus team grades, the Vikings will face only one team with a top-10 pass-rushing grade — Green Bay in Week 1 — prior to their Week 7 bye. And even those numbers might be overstated; the Packers ranked 13th in percentage of quarterback hits on pass plays and just 24th in quarterback pressures per game.

That said, the Pack certainly had Minnesota’s number up front last season as they pressured Kirk Cousins on 40 of his 71 dropbacks. Green Bay’s swap of Blake Martinez for Christian Kirksey is, on paper, a net loss for the Packer pass rush, but the Vikings still need to deal with Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark. Smith’s 90.3 pass-rush grade in the Packers’ Week 16 win was his season high; Clark posted his season-best 90.3 pass-rush grade in the Week 3 meeting with Minnesota.

Smith and Clark contributed heavily to the horrific pass-block grades posted by Garrett Bradbury (32.7 in the first meeting, a John Blutarski-esque 0.0 in the rematch) and Pat Elflein (33.8 in Week 16 after missing the earlier contest). It’s worth noting that Josh Kline registered pass-block grades of 70.2 and 70.7 in the two games against Green Bay. So whatever the Vikings decide to do with the interior of their offensive line will receive a baptism by fire in the opener.

Following Green Bay’s visit the Vikings tangle with a trio of AFC South opponents, and judging by last year’s numbers pass-rushing is purely optional in that division. The Colts, Titans, and Texans ranked 20th or lower in PFF pass-rush grading and 20th or lower in QB hit percentage. Tennessee overachieved in QB pressures per game, tying for 14th, while the Colts (tied for 22nd) and Texans (30th) remained true to form. Against the run the Colts were mediocre and the Texans worse than that, but the Titans offer Minnesota the first of five tough running-game tests; last season Tennessee posted the fourth-best PFF run-game grade and ranked seventh in fewest yards per carry allowed.

In addition, all three at least attempted to upgrade their defensive fronts in the offseason. The Colts added free-agent DeForest Buckner to their interior, but that should be offset by them starting Xavier Rhodes in their secondary. Tennessee brought in Vic Beasley and Jack Crawford, who posted 66.2 and 70.7 pass-rush grades for the Falcons in the 2019 season opener against Minnesota. Houston drafted Ross Blacklock in the second round, and there’s a good chance with this being a Week 4 contest J.J. Watt will be injury-free and available. Still, on paper this three-game stretch should provide an opportunity for the Vikings’ offensive line to work out any remaining kinks.

Then, in what has become an annual tradition — thanks, schedule-makers! — the Vikings travel to Seattle for a game in prime time. Seattle’s once-vaunted defense graded out poorly in pass rush (25th or worse in PFF pass-rush grade, QB hit percentage and pressures per game) last season and fared only slightly better against the run. Moreover, at present both Jadeveon Clowney and Ezekiel Ansah are unsigned free agents; both had solid pass-rushing efforts in last year’s meeting with the purple. Seattle does add free-agent Bruce Irvin and first-round pick Jordyn Brooks to the mix, but there’s a distinct possibility the Seahawks will be without their “12th Man” in a game played in front of television cameras but no fans.

The Vikings head into the bye week with a home date against the Falcons. In last season’s opener Atlanta’s defensive tackles Grady Jarrett and Tyler Davison posted pass-rush grades of 95 and 90, contributing to Bradbury going “Animal House” again with a 0.0 PFF pass-blocking grade in his NFL debut. Fortunately, Minnesota only needed to throw 14 times to secure the 28-12 win. Atlanta also added Dante Fowler, who posted a 73.4 pass-rush grade with the Rams last year. The solution for the Vikings, clearly, is to keep the pass attempts in the single digits this time around.

RAMPING UP (WEEKS 8-12)

Minnesota comes out of the bye with three straight NFC North contests, beginning with a visit to Green Bay. The Vikings will have had two months to iron out any protection issues that surfaced in the season opener, plus if life and the NFL are fair there will be as many empty seats at Lambeau as there were for the opener in Minneapolis.

(Narrator: Neither life nor the NFL tend to be fair, so brace yourself accordingly).

The Lions added a pair of ex-Patriots (Danny Shelton and Jamie Collins) to their defensive front seven; both posted season-long PFF pass-rushing grades better than anything the players they are replacing put up in either game against the Vikings last year. So maybe Detroit will rank higher than 25th in QB pressures per game, 28th in PFF pass-rush grade, or 31st in QB hit percentage. Then again, it’s the Lions.

Minnesota’s midseason Tour du Nord concludes in Chicago. It’s one of the tougher running-game tests for this line, as the Bears ranked eighth in PFF run-defense grading and allowed the sixth-lowest rushing yards-per-carry average. Aside from Khalil Mack posting a 92 and Eddie Goldman registering an 85 in the first meeting between these squads the Vikings largely kept Chicago’s defensive front in check. However, Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith missed both meetings and Goldman and Danny Trevathan sat out the season finale. The addition of Robert Quinn, who racked up a 52.9 pass-rush grade against the Vikings as a Cowboy last season, puts a premium on the Minnesota offensive line having its… uh, stuff together when they head to the Windy City.

Speaking of Dallas, they’re next up on the slate as the Vikings return to U.S. Bank Stadium for three consecutive home tilts. None of the Minnesota linemen played particularly well in last season’s meeting, most notably tackles Brian O’Neill (a regular-season low 48.5 pass-block grade) and Riley Reiff (a less-than-stellar 59.6 pass-block grade), which might be a larger concern had the Cowboys not shuffled the deck up front. Three of the four defensive tackles Dallas trotted out against the Vikings are no longer on the roster, replaced by Carolina castoffs Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe. The Cowboys also appear to be offsetting the free agency departure of Michael Bennett by traveling down the bad-boy pass rusher reclamation route again, this time with Aldon Smith. Regardless, Cowboys pressure didn’t seem to faze Cousins last year, especially when Dallas blitzed; Kirk went 7-for-9 in the face of the blitz, tossing one touchdown and racking up a gaudy 132.9 passer rating.

As noted above, McCoy and Poe are no longer in Carolina. Instead, the Panthers used their entire draft to upgrade their defense, including a first-round pick on tackle Derrick Brown and a second-rounder on edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos. Carolina also added former Viking Stephen Weatherly in free agency to a defense that was already rushing the passer effectively last season — fourth in QB hit percentage, seventh in pressures per game. This may be another run-heavy outing for the Vikings, as the Panthers ranked 31st in PFF run defense grading and dead last in rushing yards allowed per carry.

THE CRUCIBLE (WEEKS 13-17)

If the Vikings’ offensive line isn’t humming along smoothly by this point, December might be about jockeying for draft position rather than playoff seeding. By the time the lords have finished leaping, the pipers are through piping, and the ladies are done dancing Minnesota will have faced three teams with top-10 pass-rushing grades and three that posted top-10 rush defense grades.

The fun starts at home against Jacksonville, who graded out ninth in rushing the passer and ranked third in QB hit percentage last year. Yet despite the Jaguars fielding a front seven that includes their last three first-round picks, however, silver linings abound. For starters, Calais Campbell left for Baltimore and franchised bookend Yannick Ngakoue wants out as well — like, “goes toe-to-toe with the owner on Twitter” wants out. Even with Campbell and Ngakoue last season the Jags received PFF’s fourth-lowest run defense grade last season and surrendered the second-highest yards-per-carry average.

Then, while the spotlight shines on Tom Brady, the Minnesota offensive line will tangle with a Tampa Bay defensive front that recorded top-five PFF grades in both pass rush (10th) and run blocking (fifth). It’s a stacked group all around; the interior must control Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston while the tackles have to tame Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett. Yikes.

From there it’s a home rematch with the Bears before a Christmas Day showdown with the Saints — who posted top-five PFF grades in pass rush (fourth) and run defense (third) last year. When Minnesota hosted the Saints in last season’s playoffs the New Orleans front seven was without Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Davenport and Alex Anzalone. The Vikings allowed just eight pressures on the day, and when New Orleans blitzed Cousins made them pay dearly — racking up a 146.8 passer rating on the Saints’ nine blitzes. The interior of Minnesota’s line held up extremely well, Josh Kline leading the way with 80.9 pass-block and 82.3 run-block grades. Brian O’Neill was (59.7) was the only starting lineman to post a sub-65 grade in pass protection, and 104 of the Vikings’ 136 rushing yards came to the right side.

If all goes according to plan, Minnesota’s Week 17 rematch with the Lions will be treated similarly to last season’s finale against the Bears. If you prefer to take the pessimistic view, always a popular path for Vikings fans, Matt Patricia could turn Detroit’s defense around with his influx of ex-Pats and Minnesota will have its hands full here. But at least as far as football is concerned it’s still optimism season, which means we’ll see plenty of Jake Lacina and Kyle Hinton in Week 17 while the starters put their feet up and rest for the playoffs.

Offensive line continuity — at least three starters returning, plus a depth chart full of players with at least a season of experience in this system — should help the Vikings hit the ground running this season. And what on paper appears to be a slow build of a schedule works in their favor as well. Whether or not it stacks up for a return visit to Tampa in February… well, that’s why they’ll play out the schedule.

This story first appeared at Zone Coverage and was re-shared through a collaboration with Bring Me The News

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