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Vikings vs. Seattle: OL in Focus

NFL: Minnesota Vikings-Training Camp Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings should have a tough pre-season matchup at Seattle Friday night. Not sure how long the starters will play, but the first team should have their hands full against one of the best defensive units in the league. I don’t expect them to fare better than against the Bills, so if they do that would be progress.

It’s All About the Offensive Line

I don’t thimk there is much doubt that the Vikings offensive line is the weak link of the offense, and the whole team. It’s been that way the past couple years, even before the injuries last year. Only now, all the skill positions are better than they’ve been since 2009- the last year the Vikings had a good offense.

Sam Bradford has the skills and experience to get the job done if given the time. He’s the most accurate passer in the league, one of the best under pressure, and the 6th highest rated QB. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen are proven good receivers coming off strong years, but both could be even better this year. The likelihood of a third WR emerging this year to compliment them seems pretty good. Kyle Rudolph is a very capable TE; and Dalvin Cook has all the hallmarks of an explosive playmaker out of the backfield. There aren’t below-average players at any skill position on offense.

Enter the offensive line. It did not impress in limited action against the Bills. The Vikings are still shuffling players to find the best five, and Riley Reiff is still not a 100% participant in practice. Competition is ongoing at center.

But of all the positions, right-tackle is perhaps the most important. It’s the most important because right now it’s the weakest link on the weakest position group on the team. If the Vikings are to have success on offense, the offensive line must improve- and it won’t improve significantly without better play from the starting right-tackle- Mike Remmers.

Remmers gave up an easy sack against a 2nd year UFA in Buffalo, and wasn’t particularly strong in run blocking either. How he fares against pro-bowler Michael Bennett, one of the best edge rushers in the league, seems problematic at best.

If Remmers departs without giving up a sack, I’d be surprised- unless the offense doesn’t pass much. But I’m more curious to see how backup Willie Beavers fares Friday night.

Beavers may not face Bennett- I hope he does though to compare vs. Remmers. What I’m looking for is whether or not Beavers can build on his performance at Buffalo and beat out Remmers for the starting right-tackle job. It seems unlikely that Remmers would be relegated to a back-up spot given what the Vikings are paying him, but expecting Remmers to be suddenly better in pass protection at this stage of his career just isn’t realistic. If Remmers is to be the starting RT, the Vikings will have to game plan for that deficiency by providing TE or RB support in pass protection on longer developing pass plays- which is not ideal.

In any case, Mike Zimmer made a comment earlier this week about possibly having some younger guys on offense come in earlier to see how they do against Seattle’s first team. Not sure if Willie Beavers would be one of those guys, along with Pat Elflein, but hopefully that will be the case. In fact, it would be good to see Beavers play the whole game, minus a few snaps for Remmers to start, to see if he has what it takes to unseat Remmers for the starting gig. The comment Zimmer had on Beavers after the Bills game was that he did well initially, but may have tired later- reducing his performance. Giving him the whole game to see if he can handle it seems a good use of playing time at right-tackle, where there really are no other legitimate contenders anymore.

Beyond that, I think Pat Elflein deserves some first team reps at center. He’s had bad snaps in practice and one last week at Buffalo, so those need to be eliminated. But he has done well as a blocker, so it makes sense to see him against first-team opponents. That may also include at right guard, if at the end of the day Joe Berger is still the best center on the team and that combo allows for the best five.

I’m guessing Riley Reiff may get a few snaps at Seattle, but may come out before the rest of the starters, as they continue to ease him back into the mix after suffeing a back injury.

Overall, the focus on how the offensive line does in both pass protection and in opening lanes for Dalvin Cook will likely be a big takeaway from Seattle.

Run Defense Also An Issue

As good as the Vikings defense was last year, they struggled more against the run- something they did against the Bills as well. Among the starters, although Everson Griffen was out of position on one run, Tom Johnson at DT was the main liability up front in run defense. He was not able to get off his blocks, except a couple times when shooting the gap. He took himself out of the play one time, and the other he got there after Anthony Barr had already made the stop. And the rest of the time his blocker won the battle. That needs to change if the Vikings are to improve in run defense. Last year Tom Johnson was rated poor against the run by PFF with a 57.7 grade. That has been the case since he entered the league.

Finding another guy who can fare better against the run should be a top priority. Giving guys like Datone Jones, Will Sutton and Dylan Bradley more reps makes sense given Tom Johnson’s known shortcomings against the run. They all need more reps at 3-tech to show how they are progressing, and to see who’s worth keeping and who is not.

Beyond that, seeing who is the more capable backup to Linval Joseph- Shamar Stephen or Jaleel Johnson- both of whom can play 3-tech as well- makes sense. I would hope they both get some reps before Seattle’s first team is done for the night.

Building on Buffalo

The last thing I’m looking for are non-starters that stand out.

First among them is Jayron Kearse, who had a nice game against the Bills. If he is able to build on that at Seattle, he may get coaches considering him as a starter, replacing Andrew Sendejo. Kearse had two TFLs against the Bills, and was one of the highest rated Vikings by PFF last week.

It will also be interesting to see if Laquon Treadwell gets any reps. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a few snaps, but it may not be enough for him to show much. We’ll see. It will also be interesting to see if Stacy Coley can build on his standout performance last week.

Linebacker is also a position to watch. Ben Gedeon had a good game against Buffalo, as did Edmond Robinson and long-shot Eric Wilson. Can they build on that?

Lastly, it will be intereting to see the progress and competition at cornerback. Will Waynes play? If so, how does he look? Does MacKenzie Alexander look like he can take over as the starting nickelback? Alexander wasn’t targeted much against Buffalo, which was a good sign, so if he can build on that it will be encouraging.