"Hey, did you see the game yesterday? How awesome was our offensive line?! Their pull blocking was on point! And did you see those awesome pockets they created?! Wow! Our guys up front definitely made the difference!"
...said nobody, ever.
It's a simple fact that offensive linemen will never dominate headlines in the NFL. But that doesn't mean that line play isn't crucial--just ask the teams that are currently struggling to get five competent blockers on the field. While the Vikings have a lot of problems to address (hi, Christian Ponder!), their offensive line has been pretty solid throughout the season.
How solid? Thankfully, we can answer that question pretty accurately thanks to sites like ProFootballFocus.com. We used PFF's rankings last week to help illustrate how well Vikings rookie left tackle Matt Kalil has been playing this season. Kalil's presence has turned around an offensive line that was very problematic in 2011.
The 4th overall pick performing well isn't that surprising. We expected Kalil to help out right away and he is doing just that. But PFF's recap of Sunday's game between the Vikings and Packers had some eye-opening information about other players on the Vikings offensive line.
Phil Loadholt has been a lightning rod for conversation since he joined the team in 2009. The man is an absolute beast--at 6'8" and just under 350 pounds, his size always makes him one of the biggest men on the field. But the general consensus among Vikings fans is that his size can work against him. The rap on Loadholt has been that he gets beat around the edge by quicker defensive ends in pass protection. Sure, his size helps in the run game, but his pass protection has been so shoddy that many fans have called for a replacement at right tackle.
Has his pass protection been that bad? The numbers at PFF disagree. In fact, Sunday's game in Green Bay was an example of how Loadholt has evolved into one of the most balanced tackles in the league. PFF explains:
[Adrian Peterson] has been getting good help, not the least of which comes from his right tackle, Phil Loadholt. The "giant one" started his career as a better pass protector than run blocker but has turned that around and in 2011 was our top-rated tackle in the running game. While he hasn't quite emulated that this year what we have seen is a better balanced player, with all facets of his game now firmly "in the green". This game may well have been his best as he gave up nothing protecting his quarterback and opened huge holes for Peterson.
Surprised? It turns out that Loadholt isn't a one-trick pony. Granted, AP could probably still get 100 yards behind a junior high offensive line, but Loadholt and the rest of the offensive line have contributed in a big way for Peterson's league-leading rushing totals. Throw in the fact that Loadholt was perfect in the passing game on Sunday and suddenly it's much harder to argue for his replacement.
However, all is not ideal along the right side of the Vikings offensive line. Brandon Fusco has started all 12 games for the Vikings this season while sharing some snaps with Geoff Schwartz. According to PFF, it should be the other way around. Schwartz has an overall grade of +5.6 on PFF's rating scale this year while Fusco has a -7.2 overall rating. (Their ratings mean that zero is basically "average" for your position; a positive rating implies above average while a negative rating means below average.)
With such a major ratings difference, why do Vikings coaches keep giving Fusco the lion's share of the snaps? PFF has a pretty good theory:
There are certain decisions that have "coaches favorite" stamped all over them. Why on earth when you have one of the better guards in the NFL in Geoff Schwartz (+0.9 in 16 plays) do you rotate him with someone playing as poorly as Brandon Fusco (-1.2 in 39 plays). Unless of course you drafted Fusco and want to prove what a talent spotting whiz you are.
Hmm...going with "your guy" that you drafted, even though he's struggling mightily, instead of looking for someone better? The Vikings staff wouldn't dream of doing something like that, would they?
Oh yeah, that's right. The whole Christian Ponder thing. Even though the team also drafted Joe Webb, Leslie Frazier seems to be determined to stick with his first-round pick, regardless of how many red zone interceptions Ponder throws. Hopefully the coaching staff will look at the numbers throughout the team to make sure they're putting the best 22 players out on the field going forward.