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Why Pat Elflein Needs Serious Competition at Center

Minnesota Vikings v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Looking at improving the offensive line over last season, one position that stands out is center.

Last year Pat Elflein was recovering from ankle and shoulder injuries during the entire off-season, training camp, pre-season and the first couple games of the regular season as it turned out, although he was expected to be full-go when training camp started.

All that missed time may have contributed to Elflein’s significant regression in his sophomore season, which landed him as the worst graded starting center in the NFL, according to PFF. His rookie season was more promising for a third-round pick, even if below-average - Elflein ranked near the bottom of the league in pass blocking efficiency his rookie year too.

It was odd, given Elflein’s injuries and travails last season, that Brett Jones wasn’t given more of an opportunity. He was the 4th best center in 2017 in pass blocking efficiency for the Giants, but was quickly replaced by Elflein as the starter when Elflein was taken off the PUP list.

Be that as it may, Elflein has not been an asset in pass blocking since he was drafted, and this past season regressed substantially in his run blocking as well.

I thought perhaps Elflein’s regression this past season was the result of his injuries and not participating in the off-season program and training camp - which I’m sure didn’t help. But looking at his tape last season, something else stands out: lack of effort.

Here’s what I mean.

Below is Elflein run-blocking for Dalvin Cook Week 17 at home against the Bears, with a playoff spot on the line.

In the first play, Elflein matches-up against #91 NT Eddie Goldman. Elflein seems in decent position off the snap, but is unable to sustain his block and Goldman gets in on the stop for a short gain.

In the second play, Elflein stiff-arms Goldman, who in turn pushes him away- on his way through the seam to the second-level. That would have been nice had he been the ball-carrier, but as a blocker he simply took himself out of the play and the Bears enveloped Cook behind him for a short gain.

In the third play Elflein was uncovered and took on the linebacker Danny Trevathan #59. This was moot as Mike Remmers did next to nothing to prevent #96 Akiem Hicks from going right through him into the backfield and whipping Cook to the ground.

The next play Elflein got blown back by #90 DE Jonathan Bullard, who then moved down the line to get in on the tackle on Cook.

Elflein follows this up trying to cut-block #59 Trevathan at the second-level, but this was ineffective as Trevathan made the tackle.

The next play Elflein is beat immediately with a swim move by #98 Bilal Nichols - a 5th round rookie. He didn’t make the tackle, but forced Cook outside.

Elflein follows this up with another match-up against #91 Goldman, who casts off Elflein and is able to trip-up Cook as he goes by.

Finally, Goldman is able to stand Elflein up at the LOS, cast him aside and move down the line to make the tackle on Cook as Elflein stands by.

Elflein’s Lack of Physicality Stands Out

What stands out with Elflein in pretty much every play is a lack of physicality, lack of effort, lack of toughness, lack of intensity, and sometimes lack of awareness as well. He doesn’t sustain his blocks, he gets pushed around, doesn’t really play through the whistle, and really seems to just be going through the motions rather than trying to impose his will and beat his opponent physically.

And this was a big game. Division rival, playoff spot on the line, at home.

I did a piece a few days ago on Josh Kline, and the contrast between Kline and Elflein in terms of effort and physicality is fairly dramatic.

Let’s move on to pass blocking with Elflein.

Pass Blocking More of a Mixed Bag

In pass blocking as a center, Elflein is often uncovered. In these cases, his job is to help out where needed in a double-team, and keep his head on a swivel looking for pressure and stunts. In this he does a good job most of the time - it’s not as demanding physically - although he will occasionally miss a pressure or stunt.

When he is covered, he seems more engaged and displays more effort - although he’ll get fooled or overpowered too many times - giving up pressures and the occasional sack - more than you want/expect from the center position.

There are some carry-over themes watching Elflein pass blocking after the Bears’ run blocking clips. While Elflein generally seems more engaged and providing more effort and intensity, he never really dishes it out much. He’ll deliver some decent blows to double-team a guy already engaged with a guard, but that’s about as far as it gets. In one-on-one match-ups pass blocking he also shows more effort than in run blocking, but here too he can be overpowered or simply get beat more often than he should.

Another thing you’ll notice on the screen blocks in the video, is that while Elflein does well to get out into position to block downfield, he often gets there without a plan and/or misses the guy he meant to block. This is a theme with Elflein with open field/second-level blocks generally.

Watching Elflein in pass protection, even though he does well enough most of the time, because he’s not dominant, it’s not that surprising when he gets beat occasionally. And that, like his run blocking, is a problem - if a slightly lesser one.

Another Look at Elflein’s Run Blocking

For a center, being able to run block well is key because centers are generally more crucially involved in run blocking than pass protection - as they are often uncovered on passing downs.

For Elflein, while he got dominated in the last Bears game, he was better in other games - but I wouldn’t say he was good. Or even average.

Here is an extended look at Elflein run blocking against the Seahawks, Eagles, first Bears’ game, 2nd Packers game, Saints and Rams last season:

After looking through this tape, it’s difficult not to see the following characteristics of Elflein’s game:

  • Lack of physicality, mean streak
  • Inability to sustain blocks
  • Lack of intensity, effort
  • Frequent missed blocks on the second level

Elflein’s lack of physicality shows up in many ways. First, he never blows up a defender. Never. He never delivers any kind of demoralizing block/blow or dominates his opponent. He also doesn’t seem to play through the whistle - you often see him on the ground or walking around near the end of the play and will disengage quickly after the play passes him. On the other hand, he all too often seems to get pushed or pulled around by defenders, casting him aside to make a play or fill the gap.

His inability to sustain blocks seems to have multiple causes as well. First, he never seems to latch on to a defender inside the shoulder pads and really move or drive him out of the play. Perhaps this is due to poor hand technique or simply not being able to latch-on well enough with his hands. But on combo blocks, he also seems to have an alarm in his head that goes off if he engages more than a second with a defender and tells him to move to the second-level - despite not having adequately taken his initial man out of the play. Perhaps that’s a poor sense of awareness, but it shows up all the time - seemingly not wanting to engage in a block too long.

Elflein’s lack of intensity and effort may also have something to do with these problems in his game. Not sustaining blocks, not playing through the whistle, never delivering a blow-up, highlight reel block, frequently missing open field blocks - these could all be signs of lack of intensity and effort as well.

Another problem with his seeming lack of effort is that in big games and on key downs, when his opponent dials up the intensity and effort, Elflein is unable to match it and sometimes it leads to giving up a big play. There were some key 3rd downs against the Patriots, Eagles, Packers and Bears where his opponent stepped it up, and Elflein couldn’t match it and gave up a sack or a loss.

While it’s true that not all good offensive linemen are maulers with a big mean streak in their game, they all have the ability to consistently win their match-ups and assignments. Solid technique, effort, and a willingness to engage through the whistle every play can be just as dominant in a finesse blocker as a mauler who looks to blow you up and put you on the ground every play.

But Elflein isn’t either of these. And as much as anything else, that’s the problem.

Perhaps New Coaching Can Help

It probably didn’t help Elflein this year that after Tony Sparano’s death, the offensive line coach vacancy was filled by Andrew Janocko and Clancy Barone. I’m not sure either provided the type of motivation and coaching that Elflein needed to step up his game.

But now the Vikings have veteran offensive line coach Rick Dennison, along with a little different scheme, which might help Elflein improve.

Perhaps if Dennison told Elflein he can be a good center in this league if he puts in the work and effort to improve his game... while also showing him the tape of the last Bears game... and telling him if he ever sees that level of effort again he’s done... starting with OTAs... perhaps that could help improve his focus and determination.

The other thing new coaching can bring is a new message for Elflein: we need to upgrade the center position over last year. Whether that’s you or somebody else, it needs to be upgraded. Drafting a serious contender for the starting center spot is one way to send that message home. The other is to bring in a veteran free agent to compete as well. But Elflein should be given no comfort that the starting job is his - nor should it be.

It may be that with new coaching, more effort, new scheme and a full off-season program, Elflein can improve and be the solid center the Vikings thought they were getting when they drafted him out of Ohio State.

But on the other hand, he may not improve - in which case the Vikings need to have a viable Plan B to upgrade the starting center position. Hopefully lighting a fire under Elflein this off-season will help get him where he needs to be. Any improvements made at other positions may have only limited impact if Elflein, or whoever becomes starting center this season, cannot provide a significant upgrade over Elflein’s performance last year.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.


Should Pat Elflein be the starting center for the Vikings this season ?

This poll is closed

  • 47%
    Yes - he should improve over last season
    (713 votes)
  • 52%
    No - he’s just not good enough
    (779 votes)
1492 votes total Vote Now