Can Minnesota's O-Line Enable the Offense By Keeping the Team "Downhill"? - Zone Coverage (2024)

Super Bowl champion and offensive savant Andy Reid always emphasized the importance of a good offensive line. “The offensive line is the backbone of our offense,” he said. “They set the tone for everything we do.”

Nick Saban, one of the best coaches in football history, echoed his sentiment. “The offensive line,” he said, “is the heart and soul of your football team.”

The Vikings’ offense is set at the skill positions headed into next season, as the skill players have the skill to propel Minnesota’s offense into an elite unit. This will depend largely to whether the Viking’s OLine can help the team stay in advantageous (or “downhill”) situations throughout the game.

Skill players’ success depends on the offensive line, which is often an unsung group. Offensive linemen are famous for doing the dirty work and never getting any credit. Fans usually only notice them when they make an egregious mistake. In short, no matter how good Jefferson is or how talented Jones, Darnold, or McCarthy are, they won’t be able to do their thing unless the offensive line can do theirs and do it well.

Offensive line play is complicated. There are not only individual matchups that offensive linemen must consistently win but also schematic challenges that they must solve together. As a result, offensive lines must have continuity to become superior. The Vikings have all of the pieces that they need to level up. Head coach Kevin O’Connell returns with his offensive scheme for a third season. Offensive line coach Chris Kuper also returns, and each starter from 2023 returns healthy and ready to go.

Garrett Bradbury is ready to call the combinations and assignments. Christian Darrisaw and Dalton Risner should line up to his left, and Ed Ingram and Brian O’Neill should be on his right. A key question this offseason is whether this combination of coaches and players can execute at a high level, both schematically and physically, against the NFL’s elite coaches and defensive players.

One key aspect that an offensive line can help the team with is excelling on first down and keeping the offense in advantageous, or “downhill” situations of second-and-five or better. When an offense fails to gain five or more yards on first down, opposing defenses have the freedom to call a scheme that is ready for the types of plays that would open up Jefferson or Addison for a big play; this is uphill football.

Conversely, when an offense gains five or more yards on first down, the defense stays on their heels. They must choose whether to call a scheme that focuses on stopping the run or staying safe against the pass, forcing them to gamble. That’s downhill sledding.

Coach O’Connell attested to the importance of downhill offense before the 2023 season. “To me, it comes down to efficiency, that’s the word,” O’Connell said. “I think the home runs and the long ones are great, but as a play caller, I would love to be second-and-five.”

As part of assessing Minnesota’s offensive line next year, I’m going to take a look at the first-and-10 plays from the first half of last season’s Detroit Lions game. I chose this game because Hockenson was out, and the play-calling will be similar to what Vikings fans can expect early in 2024. Note that I won’t include first-and-15s, first-and-fives, or two-minute situations because the dynamic and play-calling on both sides are different in these situations.

Let’s get into the action:

Minnesota faces a long field: first-and-10 from their own 10. The Vikings come out in a two-back set with Oliver in a hip position behind the left tackle. Detroit responds with a Bear front Cover 3 scheme, and O’Connell’s play-call is perfect. They fake run toward superstar Aidan Hutchinson, and Oliver slips out the backside into the unprotected flats for a first down. The pocket is 10/10 clean.

Result: Downhill

The next play is another first-and-10, and the Vikings run a similar set and run an inside lead play. The line does a solid job, and Darrisaw lands a pancake block. However, the Vikings ask Addison to control the backside C-gap defender, Derrick Barnes, listed at 240 lbs., who is also aligned a gap inside of the rookie receiver. The result is what you would expect, and Addison’s linebacker makes the play for only a three-yard gain.

Result: Uphill.

The Vikings come out in 22-personnel (two TEs, two WRs, 1RB) from their own 25 and place Jefferson in motion to a 2×2 set. Detroit is in a Bear front again. Nick Mullens drops back in play-action. Detroit brings pressure, and O’Neill has to choose between two defenders to block.

What usually happens when an O-lineman attempts to block two defenders is that he blocks neither. Mullens never had a chance, and Detroit dropped him for a big loss, bringing up second-and-19. This isn’t all on the OL. The scheme had the running back in protection away from O’Neill, making his job impossible. However, it’s on the coaches and their protection scheming.

Result: Severely uphill.

The play below is what Vikings fans want to see more of in 2024. Minnesota runs a toss play to the boundary toward their two tight ends. Every man up front and both TEs get great blocks, and Chandler runs for a first down. Here, you can see an example of why many people at Vikings HQ value Josh Oliver so highly — he lands a textbook block.

Result: Downhill and then some.

Garrett Bradbury is at his finest in the video below. What he lacks in size and power, he makes up for in quickness. The Vikes run a mid-zone play to the right. O’Neill and Ingram get great blocks on their defenders, and Bradbury outflanks the middle linebacker. Chandler shows great vision and finds the crease behind the Center’s block. It features Risner’s great backside block and Oliver’s unselfish “get run over slowly” block. Darrisaw gets his ass kicked but does so after establishing the proper position.

Unfortunately, Bradbury gets called for holding on the play.

Result: Uphill

The Vikes drop back. Detroit plays an Even front and rushes four. There is no schematic challenge here for the Vikings, but Alim McNeill eats up Risner. O-line coaches will often say, “The chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” The play below is likely an example of why Risner wasn’t signed to a regular contract during this offseason, once again, as on this play he is the weakest link. They call a penalty on Detroit’s McNeil, gifting the Vikings a first down.

Result: Downhill by technicality.

The Vikings run a flea flicker here on first-and-10, doing so with a seven-man protection by keeping the TE in to block. The line dominates the play. However, Addison makes a rookie mistake and misplays the ball.

Result: Uphill with a heavy double asterisk, as this play coulda-shoulda been a tuddy.

Vikes go play-action again, pulling the RG around center to help sell the run-action. The pulling Guard whiffs. However, everyone else does a tremendous job, giving the QB the time and space he needs to do his job well. He does, completing a big gainer to Jefferson.

Result: Downhill

The Vikings, on their own two-yard-line, could really use a good run here. They go with two tight ends and FB C.J. Ham, a goalline/short-yardage group and formation. Unfortunately, the crowd noise plays a factor here. The center and right guard get a good jump and movement, but the right tackle and tight end are way late off the ball, a step behind No. 93 Josh Paschal, who gets off the ball quickly and stymies the play with penetration. Second-and-eight.

Result: Uphill

First-and-10 from their own 25: The Vikings get great combos on a zone concept here against Detroit’s 44 front, resulting in a great play here by the guys up front. Once again, you see Bradbury’s quickness and Oliver’s effectiveness at the point of attack. It’s a six-yard gain, bringing up second-and-four.

Result: Downhill

O’Connell dials up another play-action, but Detroit gambles and brings a corner blitz off the short side of the field to go along with edge pressure from the field. The Vikes pick up both blitzers admirably. However, this leaves Oliver in a one-on-one matchup with Aidan Hutchinson in pass protection; not good. Sure enough, Hutchinson gets the sack.

Result: Uphill

Tallying Minnesota’s first downs in the first half of this game, the team ended up in six uphill situations and five downhill situations. There’s no surprise that they only managed three points by halftime. Kevin O’Connell and the big guys up front must change this ratio to keep the Vikings offense on the move next year in the hopes of being an elite offense.

Bert Bledso

Can Minnesota's O-Line Enable the Offense By Keeping the Team "Downhill"? - Zone Coverage (1)

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